Guest Article on Isaiah 19-20 – By Rod MacArthur
We are happy to once again offer for your consideration offers from our friend Rod MacArthur. Rod is a very talented writer and excellent exegete, This installment is taken from Isaiah 19-20. Enjoy!
Isaiah 19–20: The Nations, Pt. 2
As we explore the impact of Assyria on the world around Jerusalem, we come next to chapters 19 and 20: the oracle concerning Egypt.
Isaiah 191–2—The “Coming” of Yahweh
The oracle concerning Egypt.
Behold Yahweh is riding on a swift cloud and is about to come to Egypt.
The idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
And the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.
So I will incite Egyptians against Egyptians;
And they will each fight against his brother and each against his neighbor.
City against city, kingdom against kingdom.
Look closely at this: Yahweh rode on a swift cloud. Did He have a cumulus cloud under one foot and a cirrus under the other? Was that a fearsome idea to the Egyptians? Given the hoopla and hype we hear today regarding the expected “cloud-coming” of Jesus, you’d think some stragglers in Egypt were about to be rescued! But that was NOT the case. The powerful reality is this: The threat of Yahweh riding a cloud into Egypt is the foundation and basis for understanding what “coming on the clouds” meant, whenever Yahweh spoke of it, including and ultimately the coming of Jesus on the clouds.
Consider what this “coming of Yahweh” would involve. Egyptians were going to fight against each other, city against city. The Egyptians would be demoralized. The spirit of fighting men evaporates slowly. It takes a while for them to become demoralized. Isaiah painted a picture of the coming of the Lord (Yahweh) as a prolonged occurrence. It was not an instantaneous event, as though done in a flash. Rather, it was exactly what one would expect when a foreign army invades a nation and gradually wears them out, even to the point where in their confusion they begin fighting against each other (just like it was in the days of the apostles when Rome invaded Jerusalem, where the three partisan sects in Jerusalem started fighting against each other within the walls). So, when we talk about the coming of the Lord in the New Testament, we shouldn’t devise a meaning foreign to what we see here. It is simply language borrowed from the imagery that was part and parcel of Israel’s history and culture.
Here, Yahweh came on a cloud. But, when He came, it wasn’t Him in person, it was His agent (the Assyrian army, followed by the Babylonian army). The cloud was not a nimbus, or a cumulus, or a cirrus, or any wispy vapor of water; no, this cloud consisted of two things, probably a combination of both. First, as Sargon’s army on its swift horses approached, through arid country, they would kick up huge clouds of dust. (We just mentioned a cloud which doesn’t even involve water vapor; it was airborne dust.) Second, an invading army, as it conquered and pressed on speedily to another city, would torch the previous city. Flames produce great clouds of smoke. This doesn’t involve water vapor either. So, “coming on the clouds,” in this case clearly refers to smoke, or to dust, but likely to both: smoke and dust. Either way, it’s wrong to assume that the cloud consisted of water vapor. When the invading army came (Yahweh’s coming), it came on a cloud, but not water vapor; it was smoke and dust. Thus, it’s a baseless, groundless assumption to say that Jesus’ cloud-coming involved water vapor, instead of the same smoke and dust.
Why not let the Old Testament serve as a glossary for the New Testament? Is it good exegesis to say, “I understand what a cloud is, water vapor.” Will we arrive at God’s meaning if we use our think-so (instead of His previous definition)? How arrogant: to use our wisdom as adequate to understand New Testament terms, rather than relying on God’s wisdom! It doesn’t honor God to do it that way; and, it downplays the value of the Old as it informs the New.
Isaiah 193–4—Useless spiritism
Then the spirit of the Egyptians will be demoralized within them;
I will confound their strategy,
So that they will resort to idols and ghosts of the dead,
And to mediums and spiritists.
Moreover, I will deliver the Egyptians into the hand of a cruel master,
And a mighty king will rule over them, declares the Lord Yahweh of hosts.
Without a true god, Egyptians searched for answers, assurances, guidance, and wisdom in useless places. They needed national strategies, not only for governance and economic programs, but also for defense and protection. Neither their necromancy, spiritism, ghosts, nor idolatry could guide or deliver them.
Sometimes the true God intervenes for His people and confounds the strategies of their adversaries. It’s a sad commentary, in this case, that when their defensive strategies were thus confounded, that they resorted to further emptiness.
Isaiah 195–10—Economic Collapse in Egypt
The waters from the sea will dry up,
And the river will be parched and dry.
The canals will emit a stench,
The streams of Egypt will thin out and dry up;
The reeds and rushes will rot away.
The bulrushes by the Nile, by the edge of the Nile
And all the sown fields by the Nile
Will become dry, be driven away, and be no more.
And the fishermen will lament,
And all those who cast a line into the Nile will mourn,
And those who spread nets on the waters will pine away.
Moreover, the manufacturers of linen made from combed flax
And the weavers of white cloth will be utterly dejected.
And the pillars of Egypt will be crushed;
All the hired laborers will be grieved in soul.
It seems that Isaiah uses exaggeration to emphasize the extent of devastation Egypt was about to suffer when Yahweh “rode in.” So crushing would be Sargon’s blow to Egypt (and then Nebuchadnezzar’s) that the Nile-based economy would dry up. The Nile, its tributaries, and all canals and streams would be as productive as though they had dried up. Whether the fishing or the agricultural industries, both would suffer massively.
Isaiah 1911–15—Unwise Leadership
The princes of Zoan are mere fools;
The advice of Pharaoh’s wisest advisers has become stupid.
How can you men say to Pharaoh,
“I am a son of the wise, a son of ancient kings”?
Well then, where are your wise men?
Please let them tell you,
And let them understand what Yahweh of hosts
Has purposed against Egypt.
The princes of Zoan have acted foolishly,
The princes of Memphis are deluded;
Those who are the cornerstone of her tribes
Have led Egypt astray.
Yahweh has mixed within her a spirit of distortion;
They have led Egypt astray in all that it does,
As a drunken man staggers in his vomit.
There will be no work for Egypt
Which its head or tail, its palm branch or bulrush, may do.
Her leaders had no idea what was going on, or how to fix it. Even the wisest counselors to one of the most powerful kings had no clue that the value of trusting in “wise counsel” was foolish if and whenever it didn’t consider the counsel of God. That truth hasn’t changed. Like blind guides, they led Egypt astray. They were like drunken men staggering only to fall into their own vomit. There was no remedy which anyone in Egypt could find, whether he was head and palm branch (elite leader) or tail and bulrush (common man).
Isaiah 1916–17—“In that Day”
In that day the Egyptians will become like women, and they will tremble and be in dread because of the waving of the hand of Yahweh of hosts, which He is going to wave over them. The land of Judah will become a terror to Egypt; everyone to whom it is mentioned will be in dread of it, because of the purpose of Yahweh of hosts which He is purposing against them.
Neither idols nor wise men could help them, their strategies were useless. Women weren’t in Pharaoh’s armies; instead, they were protected by their armies (men). They were useless in battle. In this image, Egypt’s elite warriors would become like women against the invasion from God. Even the stoutest warrior had no chance to stand.
Please take notice of “in that day” in this and the next several verses (16, 18, 19, 23, & 24). Clearly, Isaiah saw the future. He saw the army of Yahweh terrorizing and subduing both Egypt and Assyria. (Though Babylon would complete this work in Egypt, it was Assyria who was dominant as Isaiah wrote this.) Assyria began Yahweh’s work against His nation [Israel] which was completed by Babylon [Judah]. So, both aggressors—Egypt & Assyria/Babylon—would be ultimately “terrorized” by Judah. But, it would not be as the Jews of Jesus’ day supposed; that is, not by military force. (Consider the misguided expectation of Jesus’ followers who wanted to forcibly make Him king, John 615.)
Isaiah 1918—A hope-filled picture
In that day five cities in the land of Egypt will be speaking the language of Canaan and swearing allegiance to Yahweh of hosts; one will be called the City of Destruction.
The Jews of Jesus’ day wished for Messiah to lead a powerful army that would once again subjugate the nations. This verse might be one of the sources of that desire. Maybe this is the reason they wanted to force Jesus to be king; to go out powerfully against the Romans and conquer the Egyptians.
Yes, Isaiah said they would invade Egypt. And, they did, but they didn’t do it with swords. “They will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isa. 24). The invasion was not going to be by force of arms but by force of thought!
Recall what Paul said in 2 Cor. 104–5.
For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses, destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God and taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.
It was an invasion of ideology, of ideas, and of truth that took Egypt captive: not a mighty army but a mighty truth. The converted Egyptians would speak the language of Canaan. Rather than Israel speaking the language of Ashdod, i.e., converting to pagan idolatry, the pagans would convert to Christianity (speak the language of Canaan).
Isaiah 1919–22—Yahweh worship in Egypt
In that day there will be an altar to Yahweh in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to Yahweh near its border. It will become a sign and a witness to Yahweh of hosts in the land of Egypt; for they will cry to Yahweh because of oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Champion, and He will deliver them. Thus Yahweh will make Himself known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know Yahweh in that day. They will even worship with sacrifice and offering, and will make a vow to Yahweh and perform it. Yahweh will strike Egypt, striking but healing; so they will return to Yahweh, and He will respond to them and will heal them.
“In that day” when Yahweh brought Egypt down to nothing, then His truth would invade them. After striking Egypt, He planned to heal them. This reminds of Hos. 61–2, where He struck His own people, but promised to bind them up on the second day; and on the third day, to raise them up. Here, He was going to do the same for Egypt; strike them, then heal them in that day.
Isaiah 1923—The “Highway”
In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrians will come into Egypt and the Egyptians into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.
In the days of Isaiah, if the Egyptians went into Assyria, they were invading. Or, if the Assyrians went to Egypt, there was dread and terror because they were invading. But “in that day,” instead of a cloud of dust, there would be a highway upon which they would travel back and forth into each other. But the Egyptians would worship with, not invade, the Assyrians.
“The Highway” as a key and critical theme in Isaiah. See these references, especially: Isa. 1116; 1923; 338; 403; 4911; and 6210. We recognize the famous “voice calling…make smooth in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 403). John the Baptist came first as the voice; but Jesus was “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 146).
Isaiah 1924–25—A true “League of Nations”
In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom Yahweh of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.”
Take each of these terms in order. He called Egypt, “My people.” To call them “My people” implies relationship: He would be their God, they would be His people. This is covenant language: “I will be your God, you will be my people; I will be a Father to you, you’ll be sons and daughters to Me.” Then He said to Assyria, “the work of My hands.” Paul taught, “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus” (Eph.210). Christians (Jew or Gentile) are God’s creation; made without human hands, but by divine hands. And that is what Assyria would become, His workmanship. And finally, He said of Israel, “My inheritance”; the part God would inherit, the part He would own and possess. This reminds us of Peter’s encouragement: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 29).
What a grand picture of Egypt: her wisdom failing her, her counselors failing her, her idols failing her, and Yahweh riding on a cloud to destroy her; but healing her and taking what He could from her as His possession “in that day.” What a grand picture of Yahweh’s unending, eternal love for all mankind. He determined to bind them together—those who had been perpetually at war with each other—and make them one (see Eph. 211–22).
This marvelous vision of future healing brought about by the “invasion from Judah” is followed in chapter 20 by an urgent exhortation to Philistia based on a horrifying sight. She would see her vaunted ally’s powerful army dragged off naked and in chains. The deliverance she expected failed. Her hopes were dashed, leaving only one true hope.
Isaiah 201–6—The fall of Ashdod
In the year that the commander came to Ashdod, when Sargon the king of Assyria sent him and he fought against Ashdod and captured it, at that time Yahweh spoke through Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go and loosen the sackcloth from your hips and take your shoes off your feet.” And he did so, going naked and barefoot. And Yahweh said, “Even as My servant Isaiah has gone naked and barefoot three years as a sign and token against Egypt and Cush, so the king of Assyria will lead away the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Cush, young and old, naked and barefoot with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt. Then they will be dismayed and ashamed because of Cush their hope and Egypt their boast. So the inhabitants of this coastland will say in that day, ‘Behold, such is our hope, where we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria; and we, how shall we escape?’”
Interesting that this chapter comes after the threatened demise of both Egypt (chp. 19) and that of Ethiopia, or Cush, (chp. 18). This prophesy was against Ashdod, one of the chief Philistine cities. Isaiah pointed to a blunt and brutal reality: They had been relying upon Egypt and Cush to protect them from Assyria, but their “protection” was going naked and barefoot off into captivity in Assyria! What could they say? On whom could they lean now?
The point is: You cannot put your trust for protection and deliverance in an ally. The Philistines did, but their allies were taken. Perhaps they raised this lament and consternation: “My protector is going away naked and barefoot, what am I going to do now?” Never put your “eggs” in the basket of an ally! Instead, do what those allies were told to do. Earlier Yahweh said to Cush, “Go to Zion” (187). And Egypt was destined to be conquered by the message of Zion (1917). So, the better option for Philistia would lie in this line of reasoning: “Your strong allies, in whom you trusted, are being captured by the tyrant. But their remnant is going to Zion. Why not join them?” If they thought, “How shall we escape”; the implied answer is, “You should go to Zion, too.” This is part of the wonderful message of Isaiah!