Isaiah 18:1 Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia
Approximately 80% of the water in the Nile comes from tributaries in Ethiopia. Therefore, Ethiopia is the main source for the Nile, and perhaps the frontier of the known world in Isaiah’s day. Beyond Ethiopia was unknown—so is the land “shadowing with wings.”
Read the 18th chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah, when standing in Palestine delivering his prophecy, looked off to the southwest and saw the rivers of Ethiopia, or Africa; and after having seen these rivers in vision he also sees a land shadowing with wings away beyond the rivers of Ethiopia. What kind of a land was that, away beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, from where Isaiah stood in Palestine? Why it is a land that had the appearance of wings. You have been struck doubtless, with the great resemblance that North and South America have to the two great wings of a bird. While Isaiah was thus gazing upon a land away beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, it looked so much like the wings of a bird that he says— “A land shadowing with wings, away, beyond the rivers of Ethiopia.” (Journal of Discourses, 18:182)
Joseph Fielding Smith
The gospel was restored in America, rather than in some other land because the Lord willed it. This is the land "shadowing with wings" spoken of by Isaiah that today is sending ambassadors by the sea to a nation scattered and peeled, which at one time was terrible in the beginning. (Isa. 18:1-2.) Now that nation is being gathered, and once again they shall be in favor with the Lord. (Conference Report, April 1966, First Day—Morning Meeting 14)
Isaiah 18:2 That sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even in vessels of bulrushes
Most interpreters will suggest this prophecy is about Ethiopia and Egypt because of the references to the Nile and bulrushes. But the next chapter of Isaiah deals with Egypt and he clearly states as much (Isa. 19:1), suggesting another nation is the subject of Isaiah 18:2. These ambassadors come by sea from the land of America, but there are no baskets made of bulrushes floating down the Mississippi. What does this reference mean?
The old Prophet had his eye upon the increased speed of ships; but our translators have made him to say that swift messengers shall be sent to the nations afar off in vessels of bulrushes. What do we understand by vessels of bulrushes? Do we ever see such vessels, or hear tell of such, except the cradle that was made for Moses to float in on the Nile? Have we ever read of men, swift messengers going in vessels of bulrushes?
It is nonsense; such a vessel could not withstand the buffetings of the winds and the waves, nor ride in safety through the elements contending with each other, as it were, for empire; or as if the winds and waves were both armed with eager vengeance, to see which should first grasp the little speck struggling for life upon the surface of the boiling element. Who believes anything of this sort? The idea is inconsistent. But when we come to look at it in another point of view it is not so inconsistent and obscure. Brother Carn who is present knows how the German Bible reads. I believe it calls them Pipe ships. The bulrush is hollow, resembling a pipe, and the old Prophet had nothing else to represent his idea by, but the bulrush; though he saw ships in which hollow tubes and pipes were running in every direction, and he was at a loss for the name “Steamship” to apply to them. Now, says he, swift messengers shall be sent in Pipe ships, looking at the time when steam should be used as a propelling power. (Journal of Discourses, 2:62)
Isaiah 18:2, 7 to a nation scattered and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning
This is a strange phrase, “scattered and peeled.” It has been interpreted many ways. The New International Version translates it, “a people tall and smooth-skinned.” The King James translators offered an alternative to “scattered and peeled,” i.e. “outspread and polished.” (King James Translation, 400th anniversary commemorative edition, [London: Oxford University Press, 2011], sidenote) Another meaning of the English word, peeled, is “pillaged” or “threadbare.” (Webster’s New English Dictionary, Unabridged, 2nd ed., [Springfield, Mass: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1945] “peeled”) This last interpretation is the most consistent, a people who have been scattered over vast distances and pillaged, who were feared at first (when Moses and Joshua led them in battle), but now are living in a land which the rivers divide (not the “rivers have spoiled”).
This nation is Israel, like a great olive tree whose branches have been cut off and replanted far and wide, whose peoples have been made refugees and despised, who will in the last days be brought as holy present unto the Lord on Mount Zion, the millennial Zion in America (v. 7). Elsewhere Isaiah promised, “the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee” (Isa. 59:5), and “the ships of Tarshish [will] bring thy sons from far” (Isa 60:9). These are the portion of Israel who will be gathered to Zion rather than Jerusalem in the days of the Lord’s reign.
Isaiah 18:3 he lifteth up an ensign on the mountains
An ensign is not a magazine or a military rank. In Isaiah’s imagery it is much more like the Title of Liberty—a flag, a standard, a call to action—a call to come to Zion and “buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa. 55:2). “Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer… for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people” (Isa. 56:7).
Bruce R. McConkie
How glorious it is to know that there shall be a literal gathering of Israel—all Israel—as the Lord has appointed! Can we not feel the exulting joy and sense of triumph in Isaiah's repeated words about that gathering? Is it not satisfying to know that it is going forward and shall continue to go forward by virtue of the keys given by Moses to Joseph Smith? "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." (Isa. 18:3.) That ensign now floats in the cooling breezes of a modern Zion, and that trumpet is now sounding forth the gladsome tidings of glory and salvation to all men. (The Millennial Messiah: The Second Coming of the Son of Man [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1982], 340)
It seems then that God is going to lift up an ensign upon the mountains. What do you mean by an ensign? According to the definitions given by our lexicographers an ensign is a kind of a standard to which people rally and around which they gather. The Lord is going then, to lift up an ensign on the mountains, and it is to be so wonderful in its nature, something of so much importance that not part of the people are required to understand it; but in the language of Isaiah, “All ye inhabitants of the world,” all nations, languages and kindreds are required to see, when the Lord lifts up an ensign on the mountains: “When he bloweth a trumpet, hear ye.” What kind of a trumpet? The trumpet of the Gospel, that which takes the Gospel to all these nations, calling upon them to flee out of their own lands. Gather out from the nations, come together in one, go up into the mountains where the kingdom of God is established for the last time. What for? To escape the judgments and tribulations which must come upon the nations of great Babylon. (Journal of Discourses 17: 318)
Isaiah 18:4 the Lord said unto me, I will take my rest…in my dwelling place…
When the Lord dwells upon the earth, it will be like a “clear heat” after rain (alternate translation to “upon herbs”), and “like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.” Both phrases suggest a refreshing heat, which will be the brightness and light of the Lord as he dwells with his people for a thousand years. It will be a refreshing, rejuvenating heat that will make our bosoms burn within us.
Isaiah 18:5-6 afore the harvest… he shall both cut off the sprigs… and take away and cut down the branches
Where could you find a land the outlines of which so much resemble the wings of a bird, as the land of America? I do not know of any. And it seems that this land so described, had a woe pronounced upon it. “For afore the harvest, when the bud is perfect, and the sour grape is ripening in the flower, he shall cut off the sprigs with pruning hooks, and take away and cut down the branches. They shall be left together unto the fowls of the mountain, 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.” This is an awful judgment to come upon that land beyond the rivers of Ethiopia.
But first, before this judgment is to come upon the wicked of that land, the Prophet speaks of a message, or something that should concern all the inhabitants of the world and the dwellers on the earth, showing that the people will, in God's mercy, be warned before these awful judgments come; showing, also, that after the raising of the ensign on the mountains, the inhabitants of this western continent will be among the first to experience these terrible judgments.
The harvest is said to be the end of the wicked world; Matt. 13:39 (JST) and if it is so, “afore the harvest,” that is, before the final end comes he will visit the inhabitants of the land shadowing with wings, beyond the rivers of Ethiopia with judgments that are terribly severe, that will cause them to lie by hundreds and thousands unburied, from one end of the land to the other, to be meat for the fowls of the air and the beasts of the earth. Why? Because the judgments will be swift, giving no time for burial. (Journal of Discourses 17: 318-319)
Why is all this? Because they will not hearken when that sound goes to all people; they will not repent of their sins; they will not receive the message that God has sent by his angel, (Rev. 14:6) he therefore visits them first, because they are the first to hear those glad tidings. (Journal of Discourses 18:182)
Isaiah 18:7 the present [shall] be brought unto the Lord of Hosts of a people scattered and peeled… to… mount Zion
What present can we bring the Savior when he comes again? What does he want? He wants holiness and righteousness; His people will be a prized possession, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Pet. 2:9) to be gathered and blessed rather than scattered and peeled. They will be brought, literally and figuratively, by the Ephraimites of a Gentile nation.
And the Lord, even the Savior, shall stand in the midst of his people, and shall reign over all flesh.
And they who are in the north countries shall come in remembrance before the Lord; and their prophets shall hear his voice, and shall no longer stay themselves; and they shall smite the rocks, and the ice shall flow down at their presence.
And an highway shall be cast up in the midst of the great deep.
Their enemies shall become a prey unto them,
And in the barren deserts there shall come forth pools of living water; and the parched ground shall no longer be a thirsty land.
And they shall bring forth their rich treasures unto the children of Ephraim, my servants.
And the boundaries of the everlasting hills shall tremble at their presence.
And there shall they fall down and be crowned with glory, even in Zion, by the hands of the servants of the Lord, even the children of Ephraim.
And they shall be filled with songs of everlasting joy.
Behold, this is the blessing of the everlasting God upon the tribes of Israel, and the richer blessing upon the head of Ephraim and his fellows. (D&C 133:25-33)