Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 14: Isaiah, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Isaiah Chapter 18:1-7
1. Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia:
1. Heus terra inumbrans alis, quæ est trans flumina Æthiopiæ.
2. That sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even in vessels of bulrushes upon the water, saying, Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation scattered and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden down, whose land the rivers have spoiled!
2. Mittens per mare legatos, in vasis junceis super aquas. Ite nuntii celeres ad gentem distractam et expilatam, ad populum formidabilem ab eo et deinceps, gentem undique conculcatam, cujus terram flumina diripuerunt.
3. All ye inhabitants of the world, and dwellers on the earth, see ye, when he lifteth up an ensign on the mountains; and when he bloweth a trumpet, hear ye.
3. Omnes habitatores orbis, et incolæ terræ, cum signum sustulerit in montibus, videbitis; cum tuba clanxerit, audietis.
4. For so the Lord said unto me, I will take my rest, and I will consider in my dwelling-place like a clear heat upon herbs, and like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.
4. Porro sic mihi dixit Iehova, Quiescam, et videbo in tabernaculo meo, sicut calor siccans pluviam, et sicut nubes roscida in calore messis.
5. For afore the harvest, when the bud is perfect, and the sour grape is ripening in the flower, he shall both cut off the sprigs with pruning-hooks, and take away and cut down the branches.
5. Quia dum adfuerit messis, perfectum erit germen, et ex flore fructus erit maturescens; tum amputabit ipsos palmites falcibus, et propagines auferendo exscindet.
6. They shall be left together unto the fowls of the mountains, and to the beasts of the earth: and the fowls shall summer upon them, and all the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them.
6. Derelinquentur pariter volatili montium et animalibus terræ. Æstivabit super illud volatile, et omnia animalia terræ hyemabunt.
7. In that time shall the present be brought unto the Lord of hosts of a people scattered and peeled, and from a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden under foot, whose land the rivers have spoiled, to the place of the name of the Lord of hosts, the mount Zion.
7. Tempore illo adducetur Iehovæ exercituum munus, populus laceratus et expilatus, et de populo terribili, ex quo esse coepit et deinceps; gente undique conculcata, cujus terram flumina diripuerunt, ad locum nominis Iehovæ exercituum, ad montem Sion.
1. Woe to the land. I cannot determine with certainty what is the nation of which Isaiah speaks, though he shews plainly that it bordered on Ethiopia. Some consider it to refer to the whole of Egypt; but this is a mistake, for in the next chapter he treats of Egypt separately, from which it is evident that the people here meant were distinct from the Egyptians. Some think that the Troglodytes are here meant, which does not appear to me to be probable, for they had no intercourse with other nations, because their language, as geographers tell us, was hissing and not speech; 12 but those who are mentioned evidently had intercourse and leagues with other nations.
Still it is uncertain whether they leagued against the Jews or joined with the Egyptians in driving out the Assyrians. If they were avowed enemies to the Jews, Isaiah threatens punishment; but if they deceived them by false promises, he shews that nothing is to be expected from them, because by idle messages they will only protract the time. However that may be, from the neighboring nations to be mentioned in the next chapter, we may in part ascertain where they were situated, that is, not far from Egypt and Ethiopia: yet some may be disposed to view it as a description of that part of Ethiopia which lay on the sea-coast; for we shall afterwards see that the Assyrians were at war with the king of the Ethiopians. (Isa 37:9.)
When he says that that land shadows with wings, we learn from it that its sea was well supplied with harbours, so that it had many vessels sailing to it and was wealthy; for small and poor states could not maintain intercourse or traffic with foreign countries. He therefore means that they performed many voyages.
2. Sending ambassadors by the sea. This relates strictly to the state of those times. It would appear that this nation solicited the Egyptians or Syrians to harass the Jews, or that the Assyrians employed them for the purpose of harassing the Jews, or that they had formed an alliance with the Egyptians, in order that, by their united force, they might prevent the power of the Assyrians from increasing beyond bounds; for nothing more than conjectures can be offered, because we have no histories that give any account of it, and where historical evidence is wanting, we must resort to probable conjectures. These voyages, there is reason to believe, were not made to any place near at hand, but to a distant country.
In ships of reeds. 13 We ought not to think it strange that he calls them ships of reeds, for it is evident from the ancient histories that these were commonly used by the Egyptians, because the channel of the Nile is in some places very steep and dangerous to navigators on account of the cataracts, which the Greeks call Κατάδουπα, so that ships of wood cannot be used at those places without being broken and dashed to pieces on the rocks; and therefore it is necessary to employ ships of pliant materials. That the ships might not admit water and thus be sunk, historians tell us that they were daubed within with pitch.
Go, ye swift messengers. This passage is obscure, but I shall follow what I consider to be probable. The Prophet shews the design of his prediction, or the reason why he foretold the destruction of that nation. If we believe them to have been the avowed enemies of the Jews, the design was to afford some consolation to believers who were wretchedly broken up and scattered, that having received this message they might rejoice and give thanks to God. But if we rather think that the Jews were led by this nation into an unlawful league, we must then consider that this exhortation is ironical, and that the Prophet intended to reprove the folly of the chosen people, in forsaking God and relying on useless aid. Some think that these words were spoken by God, as if he commanded those nations who inhabited the sea-coast to destroy the Jews; but I am not at all of that opinion.
To a nation scattered and plundered. 14 I do not agree with those who think that these words describe the destruction of that unknown and obscure nation; for by “a plundered nation” he means the Jews who were to be grievously harassed and scattered, so that no part of them escaped injury.
To a people terrible from their beginning hitherto. He calls it terrible, because so great calamities would disfigure it in such a manner that all who beheld it would be struck with terror. I cannot approve of the exposition given by some, that this relates to the signs and miracles which the Lord performed amongst them, so as to render them an object of dread to all men; for the allusion is rather to that passage in the writings of Moses, “The Lord will make thee an astonishment and a terror.” De 28:37 In like manner it is said elsewhere, “for the shaking of the head and mockery.” (Jer. 18:16, Jer. 19:8, Jer. 25:9, 13, 18.) He therefore means that they are a nation so dreadful to behold as to fill all men with astonishment, and we know that this was foretold and that it also happened to the Jews.
A nation trodden down on every side. 15 קו קו, (kav-kav,) that is, on every side, as if one drew lines and joined them so closely that no space was left between them, or as if one drew furrows in a field so as to break every clod; for in this manner was the nation thrown down and trampled under foot. 16
Whose land the rivers have spoiled. By the rivers he means the vast army of the enemies, that is, of the Assyrians. He alludes to what he had formerly said, that the nation, not satisfied with its own little stream, longed for rapid and boisterous rivers. (Isa 8:6.) After having applied to them for assistance, they were overwhelmed by them as by a deluge; and the reason of the whole evil was this, that they were not satisfied with the promises of God, and sought assistance in another quarter. Now, if this command is understood to be given to the swift messengers in the name of God, we infer from it that he does not immediately assist his own people, but delays his aid till they are brought to a state of despair. He does not send to them a cheerful and prosperous message while they are still uninjured, or when they have received a light stroke, but he sends a message to a nation altogether trodden down and trampled under foot. Yet when he commands them to make haste, he means that the judgment will be sudden and unexpected, so that light will suddenly burst forth amidst the darkness.
3. All ye inhabitants of the world. He shews that this work of God will be so manifestly excellent as to draw the attention not only of the Jews but of all nations.
When he shall lift up an ensign on the mountains, you will see it. 17 These words, which are in the future tense, are rendered by some, agreeably to the custom of Scripture, in the imperative mood; 18 but it is better to view them as denoting what is future. It is as if he had said that the most distant nations will be witnesses of this destruction, because not only will the ensign be beheld by all, but the sound of the trumpets will be heard throughout the whole world. This will plainly shew that the war did not originate with men, but with God himself, who will prove himself to be the author of it by remarkable tokens. When wars are carried on, every one sees clearly what is done; but the greater part of men ascribe the beginning and end of them to chance. On the other hand, Isaiah shews that all these things ought to be ascribed to God, because he will display his power in a new and extraordinary manner; for sometimes he works so as to conceal his hand and to prevent his work from being perceived by men, but sometimes he displays his hand in such a manner that all are constrained to acknowledge it; and that is what the Prophet meant.
4. But thus said Jehovah unto me. After having threatened a slaughter of the Ethiopians or their neighbors, and at the same time shewn that comfort will arise from it to the Jews, or ironically reproved the foolish confidence with which the Jews had been deceived, he now adds that God will regulate these confused changes in such a manner as to gather to him at length his chosen people. The particle כי, (ki,) which I have translated but, sometimes means for and sometimes but. The latter meaning appears to be more appropriate in this passage, for the Prophet replies to a doubt which otherwise might grievously perplex weak minds; because when confusion arises, there may be said to be a veil which conceals from us the providence of God. Such also was the state of that nation whose destruction he foretells, that this prediction might be reckoned fabulous and worthy of ridicule; for, as we may gather from it, there was no danger or change to be dreaded.
I will rest. Some consider this as referring to the person of Isaiah, as if, relying on what God had revealed, he rested, that is, was in a state of composure, as we ought to be when we have heard the word of God, and fully expect what has been foretold. In like manner Habakkuk also says, On my watch-tower will I stand. (Hab 2:1.) But unquestionably he relates what the Lord had foretold to him, and the Lord himself, by the mouth of the Prophet, makes this declaration, I will rest, that is, I will remain unemployed.
And I will look in my tabernacle. 19 The phrase, I will look, has the same import with the former; for a spectator takes no part in doing, but rests satisfied with looking. Such is likewise the force of the term tabernacle, as if the Lord betook himself to rest under a roof; while, on the contrary, he says that he ascends the judgment-seat, when he avenges the transgressions of the wicked; for these modes of expression are adapted to our capacity. But perhaps it may be thought more probable that the Prophet alludes to the sanctuary; because, although the majesty of God will remain concealed for a time among an afflicted people, yet his rest will not be without effect. It amounts to this, that though everything be turned upside down, so as to awaken a suspicion that God takes no further concern in the government of the world, yet he rests for an express purpose, as if he shut himself up unemployed in a chamber, and the effect of this rest will in due time appear.
As the heat that drieth up the rain. 20 By this beautiful metaphor the Prophet expresses more fully what he had formerly said. Yet there are two ways in which it may be shewn to agree with the Prophet’s meaning; either that God, aroused, as it were, from his rest, will shew a smiling countenance to gladden believers, or will water them by a refreshing shower; and in this way the Prophet would describe their varied success. Or there is an implied contrast, by which he reminds us that, while God appears to remain unemployed and to look at what is going on, still he can execute his judgments as if it were in sport. And yet, as the two following verses are closely connected with this verse, Isaiah appears to mean, that though God does not act in a bustling manner like men, or proceed with undue eagerness and haste, still he has in his power concealed methods of executing his judgments without moving a finger. Perhaps also he intended to shew, that in destroying this nation, God will act in an extraordinary manner. But we ought to be satisfied with what I lately suggested, that when men carelessly resign themselves to sleep in the midst of prosperity, and, intoxicated by their pleasures, imagine that they have nothing to do with God, “sudden destruction is at hand,” because God, by a look, frustrates all the designs or preparations of the world. (1Th 5:3.) He therefore declares that he will be like a clear and calm sky, 21 and like the heat that drieth up the rain.
And as a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest. 22 Now we know that this rain is exceedingly adapted to ripen the fruits, and likewise that the heat which follows the rain penetrates the fruits with its force, and drives the moisture more inward, by which it hastens their maturity and renders them more productive. Now the Prophet meant, that though calamities and distresses await the reprobate, still everything proceeds so much to their wish, that they appear to be supremely happy, as if the Lord intended to load them with every kind of blessings; but that they are fattened like oxen destined for slaughter, for when they appear to have reached the highest happiness, they suddenly perish.
Hence it follows, that we ought not to form an estimate of the judgments of God according to outward appearances; for when men imagine themselves to be exceedingly safe, they are not far from destruction and from utter ruin. Thus he speedily comforts believers, that they may not suppose that it fares better with the reprobate so long as God forbears to strike; for though he appears to cherish in his bosom those whom he sustains, he will quickly reduce them to nothing. These statements ought to be applied to those wretched and disastrous times when the tyrants who oppress the Church are the only persons that are prosperous, and abound in all kinds of wealth, and contrive in such a manner as if everything were in their power, because they surpass other men in power, and skill, and cunning. But let us know that all these things are done by the appointment of God, who promotes their endeavors and renders them successful, that he may at length slay and destroy them in a moment. I am aware that a widely different meaning is given by some to these words of the Prophet; but any one who takes a judicious view of the whole passage will have little difficulty, I trust, in assenting to my interpretation.
5. For when the harvest shall be at hand. Literally it is, “in presence of the harvest;” but we must soften the harshness of the expressions; and it cannot be doubted that the meaning of the Prophet is, that when the harvest is close at hand, and when the grapes are nearly ripe, the whole produce, in the expectation of which wicked men had rejoiced, will suddenly be snatched from them. The Prophet continues the same subject, and confirms by these metaphors what he had formerly uttered, that the wicked are not immediately cut off, but flourish for a time, and the Lord spares them; but that when the harvest shall be at hand, when the vines shall put forth their buds and blossoms, so that the sour grapes make their appearance, the branches themselves shall be cut down. Thus when the wicked shall be nearly ripe, not only will they be deprived of their fruit, but they and their offspring shall be rooted out. Such is the end which the Lord will make to the wicked, after having permitted them for a time to enjoy prosperity; for they shall be rooted out, so that they cannot revive or spring up again in any way.
Hence we obtain this great consolation, that when God conceals himself, he tries our faith, and does not suffer everything to be carried along by the blind violence of fortune, as heathens imagine; for God is in heaven, as in his tabernacle, dwelling in his Church as in a mean habitation; but at the proper season he will come forth. Let us thus enter into our consciences, and ponder everything, that we may sustain our minds by such a promise as this, which alone will enable us to overcome and subdue temptations. Let us also consider that the Lord declares that he advances and promotes the happiness of wicked men, which tends to exhibit and to display more illustriously the mercy of God. If he instantly cut down and took them away like a sprouting blade of corn, his power would not be so manifest, nor would his goodness be so fully ascertained as when he permits them to grow to a vast height, to swell and blossom, that they may afterwards fall by their own weight, or, like large and fat ears of corn, cuts them down with pruning-knives.
6. They shall be left together. 23 He means that they will be cast aside as a thing of no value, as John the Baptist also compares them to chaff, which is thrown on the dunghill. (Mt 3:12; Lu 3:17.) Thus Isaiah shews that they will be exposed to the wild beasts and to the fowls, so that the fowls will nestle in them in summer, and the wild beasts will make their lairs in them in winter; as if he had said, that not only men, but the wild beasts themselves will disdain them. Such therefore is the end of wicked men, who, situated in a lofty place, and thinking that they are beyond all danger, despise every one but themselves. The fowls and the beasts of prey will make use of them for nests and for food. They will be thrown down, I say, not only beneath all men, but even beneath the beasts themselves, and, being exposed to every kind of insult and dishonor, they will be a proof of the wonderful providence of God. 24
7. In that time. The Prophet again shews why he threatened the destruction of a heathen nation; for when almost all the nations had leagued together against the Church, it appeared as if the Church were utterly ruined, and therefore Jehovah declares that in due time he will render assistance. Had he not opposed such designs, and seasonably restrained the attacks of enemies, the Jews would have despaired; and on this account he shews that he takes care of the Church, and that though he determines to chastise it, still he comes forward at the proper season to hinder it from perishing, and displays his power in opposition to tyrants and other enemies, that they may not overthrow it or succeed in accomplishing what they imagined to be in their power. In order therefore to excite them to patience, he not only distinguishes them from the Ethiopians, but likewise reminds them that God mitigates his judgments for their preservation.
A present shall be brought. He alludes to the second verse of this chapter, [Isa 18:2,] in which we have seen the same names and descriptions applied to the Jewish nation, and he employs the word brought because they would first of all be led into captivity, so that it would not be more practicable for them than for foreign nations to go up into the temple.
From a people. This expression deserves notice, for מעם, (mĕgnăm,) means that it will not be an entire nation; as if he had said, though you must be reduced to a small number, so as to be a feeble remnant, yet those few who are left will be offered in sacrifice to God. Hence we ought to learn a doctrine highly useful and exceedingly adapted to our times, for at the present day the Church is not far from despair, being plundered, scattered, and every where crushed and trodden under foot. What must be done in straits so numerous and so distressing? We ought to lay hold of these promises, so as to believe that still God will preserve the Church. To whatever extent the body may be torn, shivered into fragments and scattered, still by his Spirit he will easily unite the members, and will never allow the remembering and the calling on his name to perish. Out of those fragments which are now broken and scattered, the Lord will unite and assemble the people. Those whom he joins together in one spirit, though widely separated from each other, he can easily collect into one body. Although therefore we see the nation diminished in numbers, and some of its members cut off, yet some present will be offered by it to the Lord.
To the place of the name. This mode of expression is customary with the prophets. When they speak of the worship of God they describe it by outward acts, such as altars, sacrifices, washings, and such like; and, indeed, the worship of God being within the soul, there is no way in which it can be described but by outward signs, by which men declare that they worship and adore God. But he chiefly calls it Mount Zion, because that place was consecrated to God, and God commanded that sacrifices should be offered there. The chief honor which he bestowed upon it was when he caused the doctrine of his word (Isa 2:3) to go forth from it, as we have formerly seen; 25 so that the name of Mount Zion may be properly understood to denote the pure and uncorrupted worship of God. In short, the prophets do not describe the worship of God as it would be after the coming of Christ, but as it was in their own time, because they found it necessary to accommodate themselves to the people to whom they ministered. Hence it ought to be inferred that there is no other way in which we can belong to the Church than by being offered to God in sacrifice. Let every one therefore who wishes to belong to God present himself for such an oblation, and let him no longer live to himself, but be wholly dedicated to God. (Ro 12:1; 2Co 5:15.) Now we know that it is by this sword of the word, that is, by the gospel, that Paul boasts of offering and sacrificing men to God. (Ro 15:16.)
By the place of the name of the Lord, he does not mean that his essence, of which we ought not to form any gross or earthly conception, is confined to it, as if God were limited to a place, but because it was a place in which the Lord commanded that his power should be acknowledged, and that men should worship and call upon him where he manifested his presence by his benefits and by his power, and that on account of the ignorance of the people, who could not otherwise comprehend his majesty. Yet it ought to be observed, that we cannot become acceptable to God without being united in one and the same faith, that is, without being members of the Church; for it is not necessary for us to run to Jerusalem, or to Mount Zion, because in the present day Zion is as wide and extensive as the whole world, which is entirely devoted to God. All that is necessary therefore is, that the same faith dwell in us, and that we be joined together by the bond of love. If this be wanting, every thing about us is heathen, and we have nothing that is sacred or holy.
“The Ethiopian Troglodytes,” says Herodotus “are the swiftest of foot of all men of whom we have received any accounts. The Troglodytes feed on serpents, and lizards, and reptiles of that sort, and the language which they have adopted has no resemblance to any other, but they screech like bats. — Herod. 4:183.
FT270 “In vessels of bulrushes.” — Eng. Ver.
FT271 “Scattered and peeled, or, outspread and polished.” — Eng. Ver.
FT272 “A nation meted out and trodden down.” Heb. “A nation of line, and line, and treading under foot.” — Eng. Ver.
FT273 “A nation meted out by line, that is, utterly subdued. Heb. Put under line and line, to decide what part of them should be destroyed, and what saved by the conquerors. In this manner David is described, (2Sa 8:2,) as having dealt with the children of Moab. See La 2:8. Such a nation might well deserve to be called drawn out and pilled, that is drawn through the fingers (or an instrument) like a willow, in order to be peeled and made fit for wicker work.” — Stock.
FT274 “Videbitis.” “Vous le verrez.”
FT275 “See ye.” “Hear ye.” — Eng. Ver.
FT276 “And I will consider in my dwelling-place.” — Eng. Ver. “I will rest, and look round in my dwelling-place.” — Stock.
FT277 “Like a clear heat upon herbs,” or “after rain” — Eng. Ver.
FT278 Like the clear heat at the coming of daylight. The resting of Jehovah, hovering over the enemy till they are ripe for destruction, is here beautifully compared to the condensed gloom before daylight, which is wont to usher in a hot summer’s day, and to the sheet of dew that appears to hang over the ground in harvest time presently after sunset. עלי, (ălē,) is here used for near the time of, as we say, against such a time. עלי אור, (ălēōr,) prope lucem, adventante luce. — Stock.
FT279 Rosenmüller takes notice of another reading supported by the Septuagint, Syriac, and Vulgate, ביום קציר, (bĕyōm kātzīr,) “at the time of harvest,” instead of, בהם קציר, (bĕhōm kātzīr,) “in the heat of harvest,” but justly remarks that it makes no difference to the meaning. — Ed.
FT280 “That is, their dead bodies.” — Jarchi.
FT281 “To quit the metaphor, the flourishing leaders of a people, devoted by Jehovah to destruction, shall be cut off and trampled on. The people here spoken of are the Assyrians under Sennacherib.” — Stock.
FT282 See vol. 1 p. 96