Isaiah 18: The Unnamed Nation

Isaiah 18 talks about an unnamed nation, which might be Ethiopia. Though short, the chapter introduces us to a mysterious city and declares woe unto them for God's coming judgment. Laden with both spiritual and literal interpretations, this passage was quite the interesting read.
Isaiah 18 talks about an unnamed nation, which might be Ethiopia. Though short, the chapter introduces us to a mysterious city and declares woe unto them for God's coming judgment. Laden with both spiritual and literal interpretations, this passage was quite the interesting read.

The Unnamed Nation

Isaiah 18 pronounces a woe to an unnamed city. Although the name of the city isn't given, a few descriptors are given about it that assumably were sufficient enough for the people of Isaiah's day to understand which city he was talking about. Today, however, there is still much debate about what city this could be.

Descriptions of the City

  • Located beyond the rivers of Ethiopia
  • Has capability to send men by boat (possibly a navy)
  • "Shadowing with wings"

Shadowed with Wings

I've found two possible meanings for the phrase "shadowing with wings" that is found in Isaiah 18:1.

My study Bible suggests that it is a reference to a land with lots of winged bugs. It takes the literal interpretation that the land is plagued with such creatures which cast a shadow on the land due to their multitude.[2]

A commentary by Matthew Henry suggests a country who shadows Israel beneath their wings. Instead of interpreting it as a country out to attack Israel, he sees it as a country known for protecting Israel.[1]

Proposed Lands

Both my study Bible and Matthew Henry propose the nation of Ethiopia as the unnamed nation. The study Bible's commentary suggests Ethiopia was well known for it's bugs, which fits their interpretation of "shadow[ed] with wings."

Matthew Henry bases his identification on the king of Ethiopia and the nation's relationship with Israel. During Isaiah's time it was ruled by Tirhakah. Tirhakah is mentioned in Isaiah 37:9 and 2 Kings 19:9. In 2 Kings, It seems as though Tirhakah has pledged his allegiance to Israel, and once again it is revealed while Isaiah is prophesying the outcome of a battle. Interestingly, Tirhakah began as king of Ethiopia but eventually became king of both Ethiopia and Egypt.[3][4]

A Land Scattered and Peeled

To me, it's clear that the land described as "terrible from the beginning" and "scattered and peeled" is Israel. We can trace the Israelites straying from God from the very beginning of their history, all the way back to the original 12 brothers. Reuben slept with his father's wife (Genesis 35:22)—would she be considered a step mother since she wasn't his mother but was married to the father? Simeon and Levi killed a whole city in response to their sister being raped (Genesis 34). Judah broke tradition and went back on his word to give his daughter-in-law his living son as a husband after the death of her first husband (Genesis 38). He also solicited her as a prostitute! All of the brothers sold Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37).

It's no wonder their descendants were equally troubled. The same generation that witnessed all of God's miracles in Egypt and walked on land where the Red Sea should have been, never made it into the promised land because they didn't have faith. If that's the beginning of the nation's history, it's not surprising that they (and the church) have struggled with faith for their entire existence.

A Sign to Notice

When the messengers from the nation set sail for war, God calls all the world to notice (Isaiah 18:3). God explains that when this happens, He won't intervene. These verses contain many symbolic elements that could lead to a spiritual interpretation.

First is the mountain that their ensign or banner is set upon. Mountains are the highest places on earth, and Mt. Horeb was known as the Mountain of God. For an army to set their seal high upon a mountain says something. Whether it is about what side they're fighting for, or a symbol of arrogance (like the builders of the Tower of Babel), it's very telling that the banner is set upon a mountain.

The other telling symbols are that of the banner and the trumpet. Both are clear symbols of war, but they also tie into the end times. A banner or ensign is a flag, usually containing a seal, that identifies the army or group. Similarly, during the end times, each person will either have the seal of God or the mark (seal) of the beast. Trumpets were used to instruct the troops during battle, and also announced their presence. Similarly, trumpets are used to announcing Jesus' coming and signal God's remnant of the time in Revelation.

The Harvest Goes to the Animals

Isaiah 18:5-6 tells us that the people would not enjoy the fruits of their labor come harvest. God says that just when the buds begin to ripen, the branches would be cut off, and the fruit that did get produced would be eaten by the animals, both in the summer and in the winter. It's important to note that while this is speaking specifically of crops that we eat, this can be applied metaphorically as well. We will never enjoy the fruit of our labor, no matter what area of our life the labor is in (e.g., career, relationships, etc.), when our actions are not in accordance with God. In the metaphor, the animals reaping the harvest would be other people, nations, or entities that get all the glory of our hard—but unrighteous—work.

Submitting to God

Photocredit: Knight
The final verse in the chapter suggests that after all is said and done, this nation will pay tribute to God. It's interesting because the verse suggests the people from the unnamed nation will bring their presents or tribute directly to the Lord, in His city (where the Temple was located), instead of to the Israelites or to the king of Israel. It seems that this nation would not simply be an ally or vassal state of Israel, but a nation that truly submitted to God. What makes this particular chapter interesting is the fact that Ethiopia has deep ties to both Judaism and Christianity.

The dynasty that ruled Ethiopia for much of it's modern history is believed to be descended from King Solomon by Ethiopians. The belief is that Queen Sheba, who's visit with Solomon is mentioned in 1 Kings 10/2 Chronicles 9, bore a son to Solomon. Men who traced their lineage through this dynasty thus claim to be direct descendants of Solomon. Scholars have only been able to trace the line back to a king who ruled in 1270, but if the Ethiopians are correct, their Solomonic dynasty ruled from the 10th century bc to 1974, which only 2 short interruptions.[7] Ethiopian legend holds that the Ark of the Covenant was brought there for safe keeping, as well.[8]

Ethiopia is also one of the first nations to be converted to Christianity.[6] Not surprisingly, Acts 8 tells us one of the first Gentile converts to Christianity was Ethiopian.


  1. Matthew Henry. "Isaiah 18 Commentary", via Bible Study Tools; visited August 2018
  2. Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible, pg. 1152. 2014
  3. "Tirhakah". Bible Hub; visited August 2018
  4. Christopher Szabo. "Monumental Statue Of Black Egyptian Pharaoh Found". Digital Journal. January 2, 2010
  5. "Winter". Merriam Webster; visited August 2018
  6. Brendan Pringle. "Ethiopia: The First Christian Nation?". International Business Times. March 4, 2013
  7. "Solomonid Dynasty". Encyclopædia Britannica. April 18, 2016
  8. Paul Raffaele. "Keepers of the Lost Ark?". Smithsonian Magazine. December 2007

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