This chapter is laden with symbolism, which at first may make it hard to understand. However, given the rhetorical connections and interpretations of symbols from earlier chapters, the message readily comes through: The Lord will raise the gospel ensign, send messengers from a far distant land to His scattered people, and gather them to mount Zion.
Verses 1 and 2 are not a woe oracle, even though they may appear as one. The word “woe” is here translated from the Hebrew word howy, which is a form of greeting.1 It would be equivalent to the English “hail,” meaning “hello,” and may reflect the Native American greeting, “how.” Young’s Literal Bible renders “ho,” a transliterated form of the greeting.2
In verse 1, Isaiah describes a faraway land: “Woe [or, hail] to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia.” “Ethiopia” is translated from the Hebrew word Cush, a land which lay southward from Egypt. The land of Cush was named for a son of Ham and grandson of Noah whose name means “black.”3, 4 It is apparent here that Isaiah meant simply a far-distant land. “Shadowing with wings” may refer to a land protected by the Lord, figuratively nurtured under His wings. Another possibility is that it means wings of birds or of airplanes, or may describe the shape on the map of the North and South American continents.5 The distant land is beyond “rivers,” or bodies of water.
Why did Isaiah write “Cush,” rather than being more explicit in his description? Consider Lehi’s statement regarding the land of promise he had obtained from the Lord: “And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance.”6
In verse 2, the identity of this far-distant land becomes apparent: “That sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even in vessels of bulrushes upon the waters, 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!” “Rivers,” as used here, is a metaphor for invading armies—in particular, those of Assyria and Babylon.
Verses 1 and 2 contain a chiasm:
A: (1) Woe [hail] to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia: (2) That sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even in vessels of bulrushes upon the waters, saying,
B: Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation scattered and peeled,
C: to a people
C: terrible from their beginning hitherto;
B: a nation meted out and trodden down,
A: whose land the rivers have spoiled!
“Rivers of Ethiopia” contrasts with “whose land the rivers have spoiled!” In the first phrase “rivers” means bodies of water, whereas in the second phrase “rivers” means invading armies. “A nation scattered and peeled” is equivalent to “a nation meted out and trodden down.” This denotes the status of Israel as conquered, scattered and downtrodden. “People” complements “terrible from their beginning,” to form the central focus of the chiasm.
Three elements in verse 2 merit further explanation: First, the far-distant land sends ambassadors; next, these ambassadors travel in vessels of bulrushes upon the waters; and third, they carry a message to a scattered nation, a nation meted (or measured to be divided up) and trodden down.
What land but America sends ambassadors to the scattered remnants of Israel? At first they traveled by sea; but now they travel mainly by air—recall the “wings” mentioned in verse 1—over the waters of the sea. It is the same place from which an ensign would be raised to the nations, referred to earlier by Isaiah in Chapter 57 and in verse 3 below.
What is the meaning of “vessels of bulrushes”? There are only a few places in the world where boats are made with bulrushes, or papyrus reeds: One is Egypt; another is Lake Titicaca, on the border between Peru and Bolivia. The design of reed boats in both locations is strikingly similar, suggesting—to the consternation of anthropologists who cannot explain it—a common origin.
This reference to papyrus boats by Isaiah is not literal; modern “ambassadors” (missionaries) do not ply the Atlantic in papyrus boats. Rather, it is a cultural clue: The tribe of Joseph, divided into two under his sons Ephraim and Manasseh,8 exhibited Egyptian culture—including the spoken and written language—long after the twelve tribes settled in the Promised Land. Their scriptures were written in Egyptian, on brass plates, which later served as a model for Nephite writings. Mormon attests: “For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children….”9
When Joseph’s brothers in search of wheat in Egypt came before him after he had been elevated to a high position in Pharaoh’s government, he pretended not to understand their Hebrew and spoke to them through an interpreter.10 His descendants for many generations continued to use Egyptian as their primary language, although they spoke Hebrew with an accent. Ephraimites were readily distinguished from others by their inability to pronounce the Hebrew word shibboleth.11 The Nephites, who were descendants of Joseph, continued to use a form of Egyptian, even after a thousand years, for their scriptural writings.12 The missionaries who go forth to scattered Israel in the latter days are primarily of the tribe of Joseph. They carry with them the Book of Mormon—a scriptural account of a remnant of the tribe of Joseph, translated from reformed Egyptian engravings.
In the last phrase of verse 2, “whose land the rivers have spoiled,” “rivers” symbolizes invading armies, as used by Isaiah earlier in Chapter 8.13 In the phrase “a nation scattered and peeled,” “peeled” is translated from a Hebrew word meaning “scoured” or “polished,” or of light complexion when describing human skin.14
Verse 3 delivers a warning: “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.” “He” refers to the Lord, referenced in verse 4; “mountains” means “nations.”15
Verse 3 contains a chiasm:
A: (3) All ye inhabitants of the world, and dwellers on the earth, see ye,
B: when he lifteth up an ensign
C: on the mountains;
B: and when he bloweth a trumpet,
A: hear ye.
The Lord calls upon the inhabitants of the nations of the world to see and hear when He raises the ensign and blows the trumpet, which means preaching of the gospel and gathering of scattered Israel in the latter days. The central focus of the chiasm is “on the mountains,” meaning nations of the earth.
Regarding Chapter 18, Joseph Fielding Smith stated:
This chapter is clearly a reference to the sending forth of the missionaries to the nations of the earth to gather again this people who are scattered and peeled. The ensign has been lifted upon the mountains, and the work of gathering has been going on for over one hundred years. No one understands this chapter but the Latter-day Saints, and we can see how it is being fulfilled.16
Verses 4 and 5 describe the fate of those who fail to heed the warning, delivered by the ambassadors and symbolized by the ensign and the trumpet. Verse 4 declares: “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.” “Consider in my dwelling place” means that the Lord will watch from heaven while events transpire. Like the clear sun causes heat to build up after the rain, and like a humid mist in the heat of the late summer, the Lord’s anger will build up against those who fail to heed the message.
Continuing in verse 5, the destruction is described symbolically: “For afore the harvest, when the bud is perfect, and the sour grape is ripening in the flower”—before the gathering, or harvest, of scattered Israel is complete—”he shall both cut off the sprigs with pruning hooks, and take away and cut down the branches” of those who fail to heed the warning. Nephi foretells this same event, using similar words.17 This pruning is analogous to the pruning of grape vines after the fruit is set, to remove unproductive branches and allow space for the fruit to grow.18
Verse 6 states: “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.” 19 The bodies of those slain—too numerous to be buried—will be left like pruned branches to molder upon the ground.
In Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord described the fate of the wicked in similar but more graphic terms:
Wherefore, I the Lord God will send forth flies upon the face of the earth, which shall take hold of the inhabitants thereof, and shall eat their flesh, and shall cause maggots to come in upon them;
And their tongues shall be stayed that they shall not utter against me; and their flesh shall fall from off their bones, and their eyes from their sockets;
And it shall come to pass that the beasts of the forest and the fowls of the air shall devour them up.20
Verse 7 describes the foreseen culminating event: “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.” “Mount Zion” as used here means a place of latter-day spiritual gathering, and is also a synonym for latter-day Jerusalem.21 The same scattered people referred to in verse 2 will be gathered together to Zion, the fruit of the labors of the messengers who went forth to gather them. There they will be presented as a gift unto the Lord.
1. F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 01961-3473, 1996, Strong’s No. 1945, p. 222.
2. A wide array of Bible translations is available from “The Unbound Bible” website at http://unbound.biola.edu.
3. Bible Dictionary—Cush.
4. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 3568, p. 468.
5. Donald W. Parry, Jay A. Parry and Tina M. Peterson, Understanding Isaiah: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1998, p. 172.
6. 2 Nephi 1:8.
7. See Isaiah 5:26.
8. See Genesis 48:5-6.
9. See Mosiah 1:4.
10. See Genesis 42:23.
11. See Judges 12:5-6.
12. See Mormon 9:32.
13. See Isaiah 8:7-8 and pertinent commentary.
14. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 4178, p. 599.
15. See Isaiah 2:2, 14 and 2 Nephi 12:2, 14; Isaiah 11:9; 13:2, 4; 30:25 and pertinent commentary.
16. Joseph Fielding Smith, Signs of the Times: Deseret Book Co., Salt Lake City, Utah, 1974, p. 54-55.
17. See 1 Nephi 22:20-21.
18. Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1982, p. 208-209.
19. Verse 6 contains a chiasm recognized in the original Hebrew: Summer/fowls/beasts/winter. In Donald W. Parry, Harmonizing Isaiah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 2001, p. 259.
20. Doctrine and Covenants 29:18-20.
21. See Isaiah 3:16; 24:23; 28:16; 29:8; 30:19; 31:4, 9; 51:3.