This short chapter (seven verses) contains a brief pronouncement that introduces a cluster of oracles against ancient Cush and Egypt. Actually, the nation addressed in this chapter is not specifically named. They are described as a nation “beyond the rivers of Cush”, known for sending “ambassadors by the sea, in vessels of papyrus on the waters!” (1-2).
Commentators identify the recipients of this pronouncement of “Woe” (translated “Ah” in the ESV—1) as the ancient nation of Nubia, roughly modern-day Ethiopia (and perhaps part of Egypt and Sudan).
Much speculation surrounds verse 2 due to the fact that a number of the terms Isaiah uses are open to a variety of interpretations (“tall and smooth”, “mighty and conquering”). Some contend the message is directed to the Nubians themselves. Though they were not necessarily seen as a fearsome, conquering nation, they were “tall and smooth” in appearance. However, problematic for this view is the fact their ambassadors are told to “Go” to another people group.
John Oswalt (and others) see the intended recipients of the message as the Assyrians. They were the nation that was feared as mighty conquerors at this time in world history. While both views are possible, the immediate context of Isaiah (the ending of chapter 17) along with the correlation between 18:7 and 19:23-25 (where Assyria is pictured as bringing tribute and worship to the True God), lead me to side with those who see the Assyrians as the nation God will “prune.”
The Lord is planning to do something stunning and striking. Verse 3 tells us He wants other nations to notice: “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!” (3). God’s actions towards Assyria will make international news.
Ironically, the world-shaking events that God will carry out come as the Lord looks “quietly” from his dwelling (4). Heaven is not in great commotion, even as the Lord plans brings upheaval on earth. The Lord pictures himself (“thus the Lord said to me”—4) as “clear heat in sunshine” and “a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest” (4). The image speaks of something unseen and invisible (clear heat). He will not be noticed as he quietly, invisibly directs massive changes in Cush.
Verses 5-7 explain what God has planned and how his plans will impact Assyria, both negatively and positively. Using the language of agriculture, the Lord pictures Assyria as a grape vine that has blossomed and is now ripening fruit on its branches. But before the grapes fully ripen, “he cuts off the shoots with pruning hooks, and the spreading branches he lops off and clears away” (5). The pronoun “he” refers to the Lord, the One speaking to Isaiah (4).
When Assyria is pruned, the branches with ripening fruit will be left to birds of prey and other animals (6). The picture is rather grisly; their bodies will be food for animals in summer and their bones food for wild animals in winter. Although Assyria was an impressive, feared nation, they will be divinely pruned and left broken and scattered. Later in Isaiah (chapter 37), we see a time when this prophetic word was literally fulfilled. As Sennacherib leads the Assyrian armies to besiege Jerusalem, the Lord quietly but decisively “prunes” the ranks; 185,000 are struck down. The corpses would have indeed been food for wild animals.
God’s purposes for Assyria are ultimately redemptive. Verse 7 speaks of hope: “At that time tribute will be brought to the Lord of hosts from a people tall and smooth.” Using the same terminology found in verse 2, the Lord speaks of a day when this mighty, but now humbled nation, will travel to Mount Zion to bring tribute to the Lord. This tribute may be brought involuntary; it could refer to the booty left on Mount Zion by the slain Assyrian soldiers (Isaiah 37). However, it could refer to voluntary tribute brought by those from Assyria who come to serve the True, Living Lord. We see this hope-filled vision for Assyria at the end of chapter 19.
The Lord’s name will be exalted over Assyria. And since the other nations are called to take note, the Lord’s fame will spread far and wide.
Behold Your God
The Lord pays attention to His people and all peoples. Far from being a distant, detached deity, the Lord “looks” at the unfolding events on earth and intervenes to shape them according to His will. He prunes the spreading vine of Assyria. He dispatches the ambassadors of Nubia. Our ways are not hidden or ignored by him. “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?’” (40:27).
The Lord’s “quiet look” from heaven brings epic changes on earth. Isaiah is told by the Lord that he will “quietly look from my dwelling like clear heat in sunshine” (4). Heat makes no noise and is barely visible to our eyes. However, clear heat effects changes on earth. In the same way, the Lord’s quiet look (focused attention) brings about the pruning of the world’s superpower, Assyria. Here is a reminder that the Lord sits as King over all the earth. Even his “look” shapes the destiny of individuals and entire nations.
Here Am I
I want to be looking for the Lord’s intervention in global affairs. Isaiah calls the “inhabitants of the world” to look and listen (3). The implication is that they might otherwise miss what God is doing. He works invisibly (like clear heat); only those with eyes to see will perceive His involvement in human history. While we aren’t given a “backstage” pass to know all God is doing in our world, we should be looking with eyes of faith at the events unfolding in our times. God is at work—even when we cannot see Him (clear heat).