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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 18, or, The God of the Long Game

Hello again,

In Isaiah's ever-expanding vision of God's plan for non-Jewish nations, we move on today from Damascus to Kush. If you are a new reader, welcome! Hopefully the translation and essay below will be useful to you on their own. But Isaiah is telling many interlocking stories here, and at this point you may find it helpful to start with earlier chapters. Particularly relevant as background for this week are Chapters 7 and 8 (on the conflicts between Ahaz, Israel, Judah, and Assyria), Chapter 13 (on Babylon and salvation for the gentiles).

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 18

1. Oh, doom! For the land where wings flutter, out past the rivers of Kush,

2. Sending dispatches by sea in papyrus baskets over the face of the ocean: go, nimble messengers to the people, tall with shining skin — to a nation fearsome from its origins until now, marching regiment by regiment, whose land the rivers split apart.

3. Everyone who lives in the world and sleeps on Earth: he raises his flag on the mountains — look! His trumpet blares — listen!

4. Because so says God to me: ‘I will sit back and survey my edifice — like a white heat in clean light; like a film of dew in the harvest heat.

5. Yes: in advance of the harvest, when the bloom is gone and the bitter grapes are ripening, he cuts the tender twigs with curved knives. He removes the branches; he lops them off.

6. They will all be left out for birds of prey on the mountains, for animals on the ground:
The birds of prey will live on them for the summer, and every animal on the ground will live on them for the winter.

7. In That Moment a procession will carry a tribute to God with his Legions: a people, tall with shining skin — a nation fearsome from its origins until now, marching regiment by regiment, whose land the rivers split apart,
To the place of God's name. To Mount Zion.

Africa in 400 BC As far as the ancient Israelites were concerned, Kush was the end of the world. It was the region called Ethiopia by the Greeks, southwest of Israel and below Egypt. In the lore of antiquity, the Kushitic people were 'tall with shining skin' and 'fearsome' in their numberless regiments -- a formidable and unfamiliar nation from an impossibly distant land (verses 2 and 7). Around 730 BC, not long after Isaiah became a prophet, Kush was ruled by the powerful Piankhi (also called Piye). Piankhi invaded Egypt and ushered in a new kingdom to vie for power on the world stage.

That was to Israel's West. Simultaneously, to the East, the Assyrians were expanding their own grand empire. As Kush grew in strength, its leaders sent out messengers 'over the face of the ocean' to the minor kingdoms of Mesopotamia (verse 2). Rely on us, the messengers said, and we will defend you against Assyria.

Before Kush, the kingdoms of Ephraim and Aram had already offered the southern Israelites of Judah much the same deal: bow to us, or suffer Assyria's wrath. In response, King Ahaz of Judah had appealed to Assyria's king and paid homage to Assyria's gods, hoping that to do so would be to bet on the winning horse in this turbulent clash of nations.

This backfired spectacularly when the Babylonians devastated both Assyria and Israel, thwarting Ahaz's plans in ways no one could possibly have forseen. No one, that is, except Isaiah. Isaiah knew that God in his sovereignty over history would so outmaneuver every prince of every nation that all merely human politicking would fall hopelessly flat. That is why Ahaz's gambit failed: it represented reliance on men over God.

So here, in Chapter 18, Isaiah makes the same reply to Kush that he made to Ephraim and Aram: without God, your efforts will come to nothing. Right when King Piankhi looks sure to be victorious, when Kush seems poised to reap the fruits of its labours, the harvest will be cut short (verse 5). Isaiah calls out to Kush as he called out to Judah, Ephraim, Aram, and even Assyria: lay down your weapons and your plans. Let God run the world.

It is a hard, hard thing to do. Almost impossible, in fact: to release your grip on the future and let God show you what he has in mind. There is no point chastising Kush here as if every believer does not constantly resist the very same call. We find it devilishly difficult to trust that God knows what ought to happen tomorrow. Or in the next hour, even, let alone for the rest of history: as sure as Kush was of its own schemes for greatness, so sure are we of the route our lives must take to happiness, or success, or fulfillment. Even the thought that God might have other ideas is anathema to our stubborn hearts.

Consider this, though: the Kushitic people were not, in fact, the distant foreigners they seemed. They were (at least according to Jewish tradition) the descendants of a man named Kush, the son of Ham, the son of Noah who survived God's great flood. Long before Isaiah ever lived, Ham saw Noah naked after a night of drunkenness. Noah then cursed Ham's children, which meant that the sons of Kush (and Ham's other descendents in Egypt, Phut, and Canaan) were considered perpetual enemies of Israel and so of God (see Genesis 9).

And yet here those same sons of Kush are ushered back into the story of Israel -- that painful story of chaos and rebellion which, as I have written before, will ultimately lead all nations to recognise their need of a divine saviour. In the many unfolding centuries since the day Noah cursed Ham, God has been patiently calibrating the innumerable movements of world affairs to create the conditions under which every race will worship one Messiah together. Their original plans thwarted and their harvest cut off, these descendants of Noah will come back at last 'carrying tribute . . . to Mount Zion.' That is, Kush will be reunited to the Israelites who share with them a common heritage and a common God (verse 7).

He plays the long game, this universal God of ours. No one foresaw how intricately and how patiently he would work to reclaim those wandering sons of Ham and Kush and Canaan. Nor can you foresee, and nor can I, the unimaginable lengths to which he will go to pull us back from our own wanderings. Though we make stupid plans that go miserably wrong, though we entangle ourselves in uncountable failures and disorders and addictions, he will at last outsmart us with the healing of his grace. Before you were born, before Noah fathered Ham, from the foundations of the world: he has planned to save you. He will do as he has planned.

Rejoice evermore,
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