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Isaiah 19 When God Changes a Hated Enemy into “His People”

David Eastwood

David Eastwood has served for thirty-two years in Taiwan with OMF International. During that time, his ministry has included Bible teaching, preaching, and church planting, and, for the last nine years, he has served as the Field Director. David initially trained at All Nations Christian College in the UK but has since completed further studies with Singapore Bible College and Spurgeon’s College in the UK. He is studying for a Doctorate in Practical Theology with the Cambridge Theological Federation, investigating the experiences of the Taiwanese working class as they become part of a local church.

 

Mission Round Table 18:3 (Oct-Dec 2023): 4-7

To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 18:3.

1 A prophecy against Egypt: See, the LORD rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, and the hearts of the Egyptians melt with fear.

2 “I will stir up Egyptian against Egyptian—brother will fight against brother, neighbor against neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom. 3 The Egyptians will lose heart, and I will bring their plans to nothing; they will consult the idols and the spirits of the dead, the mediums and the spiritists. 4 I will hand the Egyptians over to the power of a cruel master, and a fierce king will rule over them,” declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.

5 The waters of the river will dry up, and the riverbed will be parched and dry. 6 The canals will stink; the streams of Egypt will dwindle and dry up. The reeds and rushes will wither, 7 also the plants along the Nile, at the mouth of the river. Every sown field along the Nile will become parched, will blow away and be no more. 8 The fishermen will groan and lament, all who cast hooks into the Nile; those who throw nets on the water will pine away. 9 Those who work with combed flax will despair, the weavers of fine linen will lose hope. 10 The workers in cloth will be dejected, and all the wage earners will be sick at heart.

11 The officials of Zoan are nothing but fools; the wise counselors of Pharaoh give senseless advice. How can you say to Pharaoh, “I am one of the wise men, a disciple of the ancient kings”? 12 Where are your wise men now? Let them show you and make known what the LORD Almighty has planned against Egypt. 13 The officials of Zoan have become fools, the leaders of Memphis are deceived;the cornerstones of her peoples have led Egypt astray. 14 The LORD has poured into them a spirit of dizziness; they make Egypt stagger in all that she does, as a drunkard staggers around in his vomit. 15 There is nothing Egypt can do—head or tail, palm branch or reed.

16 In that day the Egyptians will become weaklings. They will shudder with fear at the uplifted hand that the LORD Almighty raises against them. 17 And the land of Judah will bring terror to the Egyptians; everyone to whom Judah is mentioned will be terrified, because of what the LORD Almighty is planning against them.

18 In that day five cities in Egypt will speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD Almighty. One of them will be called the City of the Sun.

19 In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the LORD at its border. 20 It will be a sign and witness to the LORD Almighty in the land of Egypt. When they cry out to the LORD because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them. 21 So the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the LORD. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the LORD and keep them. 22 The LORD will strike Egypt with a plague; he will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the LORD, and he will respond to their pleas and heal them.

23 In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. 24 In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. 25 The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.” (Isaiah 19:1–23 NIV 2011)

 

Because we are so used to our Bibles, it doesn’t strike us as unusual that there should be a prophet in Israel standing up and talking about other nations. For us, Isaiah son of Amoz, nephew to king Amaziah, is one of the most profound theologians of the Hebrew Bible, quoted extensively in the New Testament. But at the time, Judah was such a tiny nation, long past its glory days of Solomon’s Israel. To the north, the growing superpower of Assyria and to the south, the still militarily powerful historic empire of Egypt were both exercising political and military power and were ultimately likely to end up at war with each other. And in between them was this tiny little nation. How would this be seen by the generals in Assyria who believed their rise in power was due to the blessing of their gods? What would be the response of the Pharaoh in Egypt, a self-proclaimed god, to hear that this prophet of a God of a tiny and insignificant nation was speaking words of judgement about them?

But from the perspective of the people of Judah, this is familiar territory for them and us. We are used to the idea of the prophets of Yahweh speaking words of judgement against the nations surrounding Israel. Theologically, they were an affirmation that God had not abandoned the covenant, that Israel was still his people, and that he would judge those who harmed them. We expect, with our knowledge of the Old Testament, that there would be a list of condemnations of the various neighbouring countries and then finally, the sting in the tail would be that the prophet would turn his focus to Judah and show that they are no different and also deserving of God’s judgement. Starting in chapter 10, Isaiah talked about God’s judgement on Assyria, then spoke a prophecy against Babylon in chapter 13, a prophecy against Moab in chapter 15, an oracle against Damascus in chapter 17, and a prophecy against Cush in chapter 18. In every case, the pattern is the same: condemnation and judgement. And so, as chapter 19 begins with an oracle concerning Egypt, Isaiah’s listeners would be expecting the same thing. A chance to indulge in some, frankly, satisfying racist criticism of a nation that has historically been the enemy of Israel, and stands in the Bible as the nation representing oppression, slavery, and opposition to God. They probably know that the end goal is going to be condemnation of Judah, but at least they can enjoy what Isaiah is going to say about Egypt and everybody shout a loud “Amen!” at the condemnation they know is coming.

And so, it starts as we would expect. God is coming to Egypt in a cloud of judgement: the idols trembling in his presence (vv 1–3). Already in Exodus, God had displayed his superiority over the gods of Egypt in the plagues (Exodus 7–10), and now, 700 years or so later, Isaiah’s words are confirming the superiority of the true God to the idols that have been set up to represent these false gods. These things that humans have substituted as a source of their faith other than the true Creator. For Egypt, that especially included the Nile river, the source of their sustenance and their economy—food, transport, and agriculture—and which they worshipped as a god. The people who trust in these idols will finally realise the futility of trusting in them and though their hearts will melt with fear (v 1), it will be too late because the Lord has come in judgement.

Isaiah by Michelangelo (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

The verses that follow describe how God will bring that judgement, how he will systematically dismantle a nation that was one of the greatest powers and civilisations on earth for over 2000 years, an incredible length of time! There will be internal conflict and civil war (v 2). They will lose confidence in their religion (v 3). They will become enslaved to the very nations they ruled over (v 4).[1] The Nile—the source of their economy and power—will be dried up, the crops it watered will wither and die (v 5). The industries based around the Nile will collapse (vv 9–10). The fishing industry will end. Workers in the industries that relied on the Nile for both resources such as flax and as a transport hub for export of fine linen and grain to the world will lose hope, be sick at heart, and pine away.[2] The country, once proud and rich, will be a mess of stinking canals and parched, dusty fields. Can you imagine the same judgement today? What would it look like if the huge tower blocks at the heart of our cities—New York, London, Singapore—became abandoned piles of concrete and broken glass? Once gleaming BMW and Mercedes cars, abandoned and rusting by the roadside next to burnt out shopping malls empty of goods, fit only as shelters for the homeless poor and packs of wild dogs. Yet, none of our proud civilizations have been around for anywhere near as long as the Egyptians of Isaiah’s day.

The leaders of Egyptian society will be shown to be useless (vv 12–15). Their divinations will prove hopeless and they will be like a drunkard staggering around in his vomit and suffer under cruel oppression. With their society in disarray, economy destroyed, and leadership ineffective, they will be able to do nothing to avert the judgement of God. In fact, they will not even see it coming, because their diviners and mediums will receive no answer from their idols. This is the fate of Egypt: a nation living in opposition to the Creator God in every aspect of their society. And even as we have read their judgement, we realise this is not just the story of Egypt; this is the story of humanity.[3] This is the story of a people who trust in and value their idols above all else. Idols of religion, family, career, economics, and entertainment. Idols that will tremble at the coming of the Lord of hosts. In a sense, we are brought back to consider the unity of humanity, because for all our rich cultural and linguistic differences, Egypt here could be any of us or all of us. Fallen humanity is unified in our trusting in idols of our own making. Leaders who cannot see what is really happening in the world are ignoring the One who deserves our worship and obedience. So, if Egypt represents all of us who trust in economics, politics, humanism, and the man-made religions of the world, its end represents the end of all of us (v 15). There is nothing we can do.

Up to this point, Isaiah’s listeners in Jerusalem are probably enjoying this.[4] But then Isaiah says something staggering in verses 16–24. He starts with the words “In that day,” words that are repeated six times in this passage. This is code for the final day of God’s judgement and reckoning when God will act in power to change everything. And as the story of Egypt’s fate unfolds, “In that day” we are seeing a revelation of a story of humanity that would have been shocking and incomprehensible to Isaiah’s audience as it was absolutely not what they were expecting.

In verse 16, those who opposed God are humbled. This is a judgement that brings terror and makes Egypt aware of the people of God as a sign of the judgement to come. According to verse 18, the language of Canaan will be spoken in five cities of Egypt. People in those Egyptian cities will swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. Though some have proposed that this refers to the existence of Jewish diasporic communities in Egypt, the conclusion to this passage suggests that more is intended here.[5] Possibly, it hints that God’s people will be unified by language: a partial reversal of Babel’s division. But imagine how shocking and, frankly, how unlikely this idea of Egypt swearing allegiance to the God of Israel sounded to Isaiah’s audience. And, as verse 19 says, instead of the worship of fraudulent gods, there will be at the heart and at its borders of this pagan land altars to God and pillars to commemorate his works.[6] This is the very thing that was found in Israel of Isaiah’s day.

The land of Egypt—representing slavery and bondage and the foolishness of human idolatry—will become like the promised land of God. By now Isaiah’s audience is no longer shouting “Amen!” or laughing at the absurdity of it all. Rather, they are quite possibly getting a bit angry. Not only is Isaiah cutting away the pleasure of indulging in racial hatred and superiority, but now he is threatening the very thing that they cling to for that feeling of superiority. The promised land, the temple of God, the symbols of who they are as a people with their unique covenant with Yahweh. And from their perspective, it only gets worse. How can Egypt become God’s people? “They will cry to the LORD and he will send them a saviour,” is the answer (v 20). This is the very picture of Israel in Egypt. The enemy, the ones who were supposed to be judged, are offered the same opportunity for salvation as Israel. The oppressors are offered their own Moses—a saviour, a deliver.

And they will know God and will sacrifice to God. And then, if it is not clear enough that this is speaking of a covenant relationship, the prophet writes: “And the Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them” (v 22). This would really have gotten the attention of Isaiah’s listeners, because they would have known when this very thing happened to Israel. It happened in Numbers 21, when the people grumbled to Moses and God that they had been brought out of Egypt to suffer in the wilderness. And God responded by sending a whole load of snakes—a symbol of the land of Egypt, as it was one of their main gods that was worn on the head of Pharaoh. And when the people repented, God told Moses to set up a serpent of bronze on a pole.

The Bronze Serpent (Num. 21:4–9) by Gustave Doré (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

We are familiar with the story and know that the symbolism is even more significant for us as Christians because Jesus Christ, the incarnate son of God, identified himself with the bronze serpent in John 3. So, even though there is nothing that Egypt (or the world) can do about the judgement to come (v 15), the Lord takes the initiative to strike and to heal. And the pattern of striking and healing will also be seen in Isaiah 53, where God punishes his own servant, striking him with punishment, and by his wounds we are healed. This reminds us of how he has saved us and this is the language being used here in Isaiah 19.

When verse 23 speaks of a highway running from Egypt to Assyria, Isaiah introduces the other major superpower of his day and intimates that this is the nation most likely to end up going to war with Egypt. But in ancient times, road building required peace. We know, for example, of the Roman roads and the Pax Romana, a 200-year period of peace and prosperity in the Roman empire that made it possible for the gospel to spread so quickly in the 200 years following Jesus’ death. This road Isaiah mentions going from Egypt to Assyria represents a promise of peace over that whole area. But it’s not only a road for peace, but a road used for pilgrimage. This is a story, not of these two nations and their hatred for each other, but of all nations and all racial and national hatred. Here, the prophet announces how the dream of peace in the Middle East will be achieved: through the desire of the people of the world to worship the true and living God. In that day, there will be true and lasting peace. But how will it happen? Through the worship of God. Isaiah likes to use the metaphor of a road to represent the end to alienation and separation (11:16, 33:8, 35:8, 40:3, 49:11, 62:10).[7] And we see the metaphor develop through Isaiah from there being a road representing peace and unity of people in the worship of God, to the preparation of a road that will welcome the coming of God’s Messiah, to a highway over which the nations will flow into Zion as they come to worship God (62:10).[8]

So, as verse 24 states, “in that day Israel will be the third.” Remember who the people of Israel are. Remember why they hated Egypt and most of the other nations around them. Remember too, why they felt superior to those nations. Israel had, at this point, a history of a thousand or more years (depending on when you date the Exodus) of oppression, attempts at cultural and physical genocide, but also the special relationship with God through the covenant, a relationship that gave Israel their total sense of superiority to the nations around them. They were the people of God, the covenant people, the redeemed people. And so, when Isaiah says: “Israel will be the third along with Egypt and Assyria a blessing on the earth,” this is the language of the Abrahamic covenant, not just applied to the Gentile nations, but being fulfilled through them. And God says, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.” These are words that sound like those the Mosaic covenant applied to Israel. Chris Wright describes this as “one of the most breathtaking pronouncements of any prophet, and certainly one of the missiologically most significant texts in the Old Testament.”[9] Wherever Isaiah delivered this message—but especially if it was in the temple in Jerusalem—I can’t begin to imagine what the response was. They would have heard it as an insult to Israel. But God is saying that “I will have my people and they will not be ethnically defined.” God’s people will be from multiple ethnicities, and it is through this people that God will bless all nations. Because God took the initiative, changed the story in a startling way by striking his Son who represented all mankind, he made it possible that anyone who looks to him will be healed, by his wounds.

So just as there is unity in judgement—a world of people unified by condemnation of sin, irrespective of whether they are Buddhists, Muslims, secular atheists, or nominal Christians, irrespective of whether they are Asian, African, or European, irrespective of whether they or their ancestors were oppressors or oppressed, enslavers or enslaved, rich or poor, colonialists or colonised. A world unified by idolatry and rejection of the true Creator God is offered a much more blessed, eternal, and meaningful unity together before the feet of the Redeemer. It truly is amazing to see this in Isaiah. The offer of a release from all bondage to sin is offered on equal terms to all humans regardless of any human-made distinction. The equality of all humans—confirmed in both the act of creation and the calamity of the fall—finds its final expression when God restores all the broken relationships caused by sin through the reconciliation achieved in Christ. This equality, though, does not minimise the rich diversity in which God has allowed us to express our humanity. When all power and authority is acknowledged to be in the hands of God, then differences between humans no longer become a foundation for creating hierarchies of importance that need to be defended, supported, and justified by grasping power and oppressing others.

The phrase, “In that day,” takes us, as New Testament Christians, to Revelation 21:24–26 where the kings of the earth will bring into the new Jerusalem the glory and honour of the nations. All that is good about humanity will be celebrated and offered to God when people from every tongue, tribe, and nation will be gathered before the throne to worship God. Have you ever wondered how John knew they were from every nation, tribe, people, and language? I suppose it could be a knowledge imparted supernaturally, but perhaps even their resurrection bodies and those white robes still showed the different skin colours, facial features, and perhaps even cultural fashions. That is just speculation, but what we have seen from this passage in Isaiah is a bold proclamation of the universal Lordship of Yahweh in the face of superpower domination, impending war, and racial hatred. It has been a reminder to us that the clear, biblical message is that, ultimately, it is in the act of submission to and worship of the Creator God that a redeemed humanity will cast aside all racism, nationalism, and class prejudice and stand with unity before the throne. But we don’t have to wait until that day to worship. How can we allow our worship of our Saviour shape our attitudes to others, especially others who are not like us? How should we proclaim the gospel of salvation in a way that makes the world aware that they can do nothing, except humbly accept the love and grace that is offered to them?

 

[1] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 139, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 366–67.

[2] Oswalt, Isaiah, Chapters 139, 369–70.

[3] Bultema describes Egypt as “the symbol of world power in general and of the house of bondage from which God’s people must be delivered in particular”. Later in Scripture, Babylon will take on this significance. Harry Bultema, Commentary on Isaiah, trans. Cornelius Lambregtse (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1981), 194.

[4] That is, all except for the political leaders in Jerusalem who were attempting to forge an alliance with Egypt in order to resist the yoke of Assyria. Motyer sees a key purpose of 19:1–15 to be to dissuade the leaders of Judah from relying on a nation doomed to God’s judgement. J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: IVP, 1993), 163.

[5] See Oswalt, Isaiah, Chapters 139, 376. Commentators have interpreted this in very different ways. Calvin suggested the text meant five out of every six cities would turn to God, but others have looked for a later historical explanation based on references to Jewish colonies in Egypt after the exile (cf. Jer 44:1). I am not sure the precise number is as significant as the shocking idea to Isaiah’s listeners that this would happen at all.

[6] A Jewish temple is known to have existed at Elephantine in 410 BC that was possibly built after the fall of Jerusalem. John Merlin Powis Smith, “The Jewish Temple at Elephantine,” The Biblical World 31, no. 6 (1908): 448–59, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3141839 (accessed 19 December 2023). Another Jewish temple was built in Leontopolis around 170 BC. Josephus claimed that though it was built to draw the loyalty of Jews away from Jerusalem, “There had been also a certain ancient prediction made by [a prophet] whose name was Isaiah, about six hundred years before, that this temple should be built by a man that was a Jew in Egypt.” Josephus, The Jewish Wars, xii:10.3. This temple was destroyed by the Romans in 73 AD. Both of these temples were built by Jews, not Egyptians, and it is possible that the prophecy of Isaiah of the conversion of Egyptians to worship Yahweh was so distasteful to the Jews that they deliberately misinterpreted it to justify their disobedience of the Law of Moses that insisted that the temple altar should be in the promised land. See Powis Smith, “The Jewish Temple at Elephantine, 458. Cf. Deut 12:5–19).

[7] Oswalt, Isaiah, Chapters 139, 380.

[8] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 4066, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 588.

[9] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Nottingham: IVP, 2006), 236.

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