Bible Commentary: Isaiah 19:1-20:6

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Isaiah 19:1-20:6

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Egypt's Judgment and Deliverance

In Isaiah 19, Isaiah delivers this "burden against Egypt." Set as it is between Isaiah 18 and 20, the prophecy would appear to have been written between 715 and 709 B.C. After a period of infighting and anarchy (19:2), Egypt is to come under the dominance of an oppressive foreign power (verse 4). Historically, such oppression came a number of times—from Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Seleucid Syria, Rome and later conquerors.

(Alexander the Great was welcomed as Egypt's deliverer from Persia and some identify him with the savior of verse 20—and they see the peace between Israel, Egypt and Assyria at the end of the chapter as representative of the stability within Alexander's brief empire. But this is clearly not what is meant at all.)

The fact that Egypt is reconciled with Assyria at the end of the chapter shows that Assyria is most likely the "cruel master" mentioned earlier in the chapter (verse 4). The prophecy, therefore, might have had some fulfillment in what would begin around 45 years later—the conquest and assimilation of Egypt by the Assyrian Empire under Esarhaddon and then Ashurbanipal. These kings took over from Egypt's ruling Ethiopian dynasty.

However the entire chapter, particularly the way it ends, reveals that this prophecy mainly concerns the end time. As was mentioned in the highlights for our previous reading, the end-time ruler of Assyria—the "king of the North" of Daniel and the Beast of Revelation—will invade and oppress Egypt and Ethiopia in the years just prior to Christ's return (Daniel 11:42-43). This means that the "Savior and Mighty One" to deliver the Egyptians (verse 20) is the returning Jesus Christ, who will crush their Assyrian oppressors. (It should also be considered that Assyria of the last days is apparently the dominant power within a resurrected Babylon and Rome—so Egypt's ancient conquests by these and related empires would also appear to serve as forerunners of the coming end-time oppression.)

Verse 17 says that the land of Judah will initially be terrifying to the Egyptians. This did not happen in Isaiah's day. The reference is, again, to the last days. However, it is unclear whom the Egyptians fear. It could possibly be the resurgent Jews at Christ's return (see Zechariah 12:6; 14:14). Then again, perhaps it is the Egyptians' oppressor, the Assyro-Babylonian Beast power, that terrifies them. Its ruling dictator, the king of the North, will have set up his headquarters in Jerusalem (Daniel 11:45, KJV). But most likely it is the awesome power of the returning Christ that they fear. Perhaps they will not understand who He is. And for those who do, they may still be afraid—as they will have been enemies of the Jews and Christians before this. They might imagine terrible retribution. Yet Christ has come to rescue them as well.

Ultimately Egypt will come under His loving dominion (verses 18-22). Verse 19 points out that Egypt will one day have its own altar to God, providing us a glimpse into how God will be worshiped when more nations than Israel come under His rule. Historically, not all altars were built for the purpose of offering incense or sacrifices (compare Joshua 22). However, Isaiah 19:21 does mention sacrifice and offering (the Hebrew apparently denoting peace offering and grain offering respectively), which might be offered on that altar.

Malachi 1:11 confirms that other nations will be permitted to have centers of worship at which to offer incense to God as well as offerings (again probably grain offerings, as indicated by the Hebrew here). There is evidently no mention of burnt or sin offerings in these verses, so whether or not these will also be offered at satellite places of worship is not clear. Nevertheless, the nations—Egypt included—will still be expected to attend the feasts of God in Jerusalem or they will be disciplined by such divine measures as the removal of rainfall (Zechariah 14:16-19). God's striking of Egypt in Isaiah 19:22 may refer to these same disciplinary actions, although it could simply refer to the Assyrian oppression.

Israel One of Three With Egypt and Assyria

Eventually, Egypt will reconcile with God, with the people of Israel and with the Assyrians, and will become one of the leading nations in a world of peace (verses 23-25). The highway between Assyria and Egypt must necessarily run through Israel, which lies between them geographically. It is evidently the same route of return taken previously by the returning Israelite exiles from both lands (see Isaiah 11:11, 16). In this case, "the highway symbolizes good will and understanding, free and speedy access. The word, used as an image by Isaiah, indicates the close relationship between once hostile nations forged by a shared commitment to the God of the Jews. When God can say of Egypt and Assyria as well as of Israel, 'my people' (Isaiah 19:25), the world will have peace and blessing at last" (Lawrence Richards, The Bible Reader's Companion,1991, note on Isaiah 19:23).

Further prophecies concerning Egypt can be found in Jeremiah 46 and Ezekiel 29-32.

Sign Against the South

Isaiah 20:1 is the only place that the Assyrian king Sargon II is actually mentioned in the Bible by name. His name here, and the defeat of Ashdod, enables us to date this episode. "Tartan"—the New King James margin has "or the Commander in Chief"—refers to one of the three chief officers of the Assyrian Empire (see 2 Kings 18:17).

One source describes the period this way: "Unrest in the Holy Land did not cease...and in 713-712 B.C. the Assyrians had to put down additional rebellions in Ashdod. The revolt in 712 B.C. was supported by the Ethiopian pharaoh, founder of the twenty-fifth dynasty in Egypt (Isaiah 20). According to Sargon's inscriptions, Judah, Edom, and Moab were also involved in the revolt, though they surrendered—evidently quickly, and most of the Assyrian wrath was vent upon Ashdod. In a campaign against Ashdod and its port Asdudimmu (Ashdod-yam), Sargon also conquered Gibbethon, Ekron, and Gath. From the informative description of the capture of [the Jewish city of] Azekah 'lying on a mountain ridge like the edge of a sword,' it appears that this campaign was directed against Judah as well" (Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah, The Macmillan Bible Atlas, 1977, p. 97).

It would seem, however, that Hezekiah did not participate in the actual rebellion. Perhaps he was about to and Isaiah's urgings prevented him from going through with it—thus saving him and his kingdom from Sargon's full wrath. The New Bible Commentary explains the same events this way: "The Philistine city of Ashdod had revolted against Assyria, which promptly deposed its king [Azuri in 713]. A new ringleader, Yamani, carried on the struggle, with pledged support from Egypt and Ethiopia, and had also approached Judah. Isaiah's powerful dissuasion turned out to be fully justified: Egypt failed to fight, Ashdod was subjugated [in 712], and Yamani, who had fled to Ethiopia, was handed over [by the fearful Egyptians] to the Assyrians' tender mercies...The year was 711" (note on Isaiah 20:1-6).

In any case, neither Isaiah "nor other biblical or extrabiblical sources reveal the outcome where Hezekiah is concerned. One can only surmise that Sargon's malevolent objectives remained unfulfilled [that is, if he had intended major action against Judah], though at least one Assyrian text refers to Judah as a tribute state, thus implying that Hezekiah was, temporarily at least, subject to Sargon" (Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, p. 413).

God told Isaiah to walk around barefoot and naked for three years as a sign of Assyria taking the Egyptians and Ethiopians captive. The term "naked" might still have allowed for a loincloth. Probably, "Isaiah's symbolical action did not continue all this time [of three years], but at intervals, to keep it before the people's mind during that period" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on verse 3). The three years themselves are probably 713 through 711—from the initial defeat of Ashdod to the end of the rebellion. (The three years might not mean three full years but a time stretching across three calendar years.)

The prophecy of verses 3-4 is likely a reference to the Assyrian conquest of Ethiopian-led Egypt under Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. However, as with the other prophecies of this section, it probably also applies to the end-time subjugation of Egypt and Ethiopia by the final Assyrian Beast power.

The "they" in verse 5 are those who are looking to Egypt for deliverance from Assyria, which would have included Judah at the time Isaiah wrote. However, if the prophecy was specific to his time it would make more sense to have said "you" if referring to Judah. In the last days, Judah will not be looking to Egypt for its deliverance—as this would require the Jewish state of Israel to be looking to the Arab world for deliverance, which is extremely unlikely. So the "they" likely refers to other end-time nations looking to Egypt or its Muslim allies for help. And the "inhabitants of this territory" who look to Egypt for aid (verse 6) would seem to be the modern Palestinians. Just as Egypt, they will not escape conquest by the end-time Assyrian Beast.