Tuesdays with Isaiah (Chapter 19)

The oracle against Egypt given in chapter 19 carries significance on several levels.  As one of the national powers of the region—with aspirations for ANE supremacy—Egypt was a formidable force.  In fact, Israel had a tendency to look to Egypt as a defender against eastern powers.  Isaiah brings a message of coming judgment upon Egypt, both to humble the proud Egyptians and to chasten the misguided Israelites who were looking to Egypt rather than to the Lord as their security and saviour.

As the oracle begins, the Lord is seen moving swiftly (“riding on a swift cloud”—1) towards Egypt, causing panic and fear among the people and their idols.  What does the Lord do?  The following verses (2-15) reveal His judgment upon Israel in four significant ways. 

First, the Lord stirs up civil unrest within Egypt, leading to civil war: “And I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, each against another and each against his neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom” (2).  

Second, the Lord creates confusion in the minds of Egypt’s leaders and counselors: “I will confound their counsel” (3).  As a result, the “wisest counselors of Pharaoh give stupid counsel” (11). Although they turn to their “idols and the sorcerers, and the mediums and the necromancers” (3), these advisors to the Pharaoh remain “utterly foolish” (11).  As verse 14 explains, “The Lord has mingled within her a spirit of confusion, and they will make Egypt stagger in all its deeds, as a drunken man staggers in his vomit” (14).  Not a pretty picture.

Third, the Lord brings a drought that dries up the Nile river, devastating the Egyptian economy (5-10).  As the river becomes “dry and parched, and its canals . . . become foul” (5-6), the fishermen are out of work (8). So are those in agriculture who relied on the Nile for irrigation: “The workers in combed flax will be in despair, and the weavers of white cotton” (9).

Fourth, the Lord pledges to “give over the Egyptians into the hand of a hard master, and a fierce king will rule over them” (4).  This could refer to a military invasion that brings the weakened nation into submission to foreign power.  John Oswalt notes it could also speak not of a foreign ruler, but an Egyptian leader who treats his own people in a fierce, hard way.   

As a result of these divine judgments, Egypt is reduced to a panic-filled, divided, confused and subjugated nation.  The idols worshiped by the Egyptians are shown (as in the Exodus) to be powerless before the True Lord of the earth.  The “swift” judgment of God carries out his divine purposes in a way the Egyptians and their gods are powerless to resist: “And there will be nothing for Egypt that head or tail, palm branch or reed, may do” (15).

At this point, the oracle begins to head in a new, surprising direction.  Verse 16 speaks of a coming day (“In that day”) when Egypt has been brought low, when the Egyptians “tremble with fear before the hand that the Lord of hosts shakes over them.”  At the point when they realize they cannot stop or blunt “the purpose that the Lord of hosts has purposed against them” (17).  But having been severely chastened by the Lord, at least some in Egypt have a heart change; some turn to the Lord: “In that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts” (18).  Parts of Egypt evidently turn away from their former reliance on “idols, sorcerers, mediums and necromancers (3), and transfer their allegiance to the Lord.  “In that day” (third time this phrase is used—16, 18, 19) there will be an “altar to the Lord” in the midst of Egypt and “a pillar to the Lord” along the border (19).  These will be signs and symbols of their new devotion to the “Lord of hosts” (or God of armies).

Biblical commentators differ in their interpretation of the specifics of this vision (the five cities that speak the language of Canaan, the altar in the midst of the country and the pillar along the border).  From my previous study of Ezekiel’s prophetic visions (especially Ezekiel 37-48), I side with those who see prophets using the language and specifics of their time to picture a future reality.  As Ezekiel described a culminating battle using military terminology from his time, so Isaiah speaks of a future turning in Egypt using the religious terminology of his day (altars, pillars). The overall meaning of these particulars is that God will bring about a spiritual change in the nation of Egypt, changing their allegiance from idols to Himself and His worship.

As the Lord sees their turning towards Him, He moves to bring help and hope to Egypt: “When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender and deliver them” (20).  He will make Himself known to the Egyptians and they will know him in a saving way (21).  The Egyptians will “worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them” (21). The same Lord who struck the Egyptians will now heal them (22).  The One who brought misery upon them, now will show mercy (22). 

But it gets more amazing still.  “In that day” (fourth occurrence of the phrase) there will be shalom among the nations that were formerly bitter adversaries: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians” (23).  Lest we think their worship is simply a continuation of their previous idolatry, Isaiah adds an amazing explanation: “In that day” (fifth time for this phrase), Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria, the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance” (24-25).

The oracle that began with the Lord bringing swift, severe destruction on Egypt, ends with Egypt, along with their rivals—the Assyrians, joining Israel to bring worship to the Lord.  The Lord of Israel is now the Lord of Egypt and Assyria.  Peace replaces war.  Shalom has come as nations unite to worship the True King and Lord of Armies.

Behold Your God

The Lord’s purposes are often unknowable until He reveals them.  In verse 12, Isaiah rebukes the so-called wise men of Egypt for being unable to discern what God is doing: “Let them tell you that they might know what the Lord of host has purposed against Egypt.”  Until and unless the Lord chooses to reveal His divine purposes, they remain a mystery to us.  We only know them as He chooses to disclose them or until they come to pass.  That was true for Egypt, it’s still true today.  We know His ultimate purpose (to unite all things under Christ—Eph 1:9-10), but cannot confidently say what He’s doing in the short run in a specific situation or nation.  As I write this, we are in the grips of a global pandemic.  We know that the Lord will be exalted among the nations (Ps 46:10) but don’t know what He plans to do with individual nations at this moment. 

The Lord’s purposes are unstoppable.   Several times in this chapter we read about the Lord’s purposes for Egypt.  The Egyptian wise men are unable to discern the Lord’s purposes “against Egypt” (12).  They try to give counsel to the Pharaoh, showing themselves foolish in the process (11).  As judgment falls on Egypt and they begin to realize that the Lord God is behind it, they “fear because of the purpose that the Lord of hosts has purposed against them” (17). But they are unable to stop God’s purposes from coming to pass.  As Psalm 33:10-11 declares: “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.  The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.”  God’s plans always stand.

The Lord works through human agency to fulfill His purposes.  In verse 14 we see how the Lord accomplishes part of His purpose for Egypt.  He works through Egyptian leaders to help bring about Egypt’s demise: “The Lord has mingled within her a spirit of confusion, and they [the leaders] will make Egypt stagger in all its deeds, as a drunken man staggers in his vomit.”  In this compatibilist plan, God moves the movers of a society to fulfill His plans.  Unknowingly, and willingly, they chart a course that leads to the destination He has set for them.  Human choices carry out God’s greater choice.

The Lord’s purposes are redemptive.  While the Lord strikes Egypt with speed and severity, His ultimate purposes are to reveal Himself and bring salvation to the nation. “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” (22).  Even those who have opposed Him (including Assyria!) have a place in His heart and in His plan.  God’s purposes for the nations, as revealed to Abram (Gen 12:1-3) are ultimately redemptive.  He purposes to save some from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).  How high and wide and broad and deep is the love of Christ; it takes those who were God’s enemies and turns them into friends—reconciling them through the cross of Christ Jesus (Romans 5:8-10).

Here Am I

I can trust the Lord to carry out His purposes for the nations.  While none are wise enough to discern all of God’s doings, we can trust Him to carry out His purposes.  He will be exalted in the earth as the true, living God and King (Ps 46:10).  So even in the midst of global crises, I can rest in His purposes and plans—they are unstoppable. Even more comforting, they are redemptive.  As we see in the case of Egypt and Assyria, God will draw people to Himself from every tribe, tongue, people and nation (Rev 5:9).

I worship the Lord who changes enemies into worshippers.  This chapter takes an amazing turn as it describes the turning of the Egyptians to the true God.  Though the Lord strikes them for their idolatry and pride, He strikes to heal them (22). In a stunning conclusion to the vision, Egypt, along with Assyria are seen in partnership with Israel as true worshippers of the true God (24-25).  Here is hope for the world.  Here is reason to continue to pray for the nations.  God’s heart and purposes are redemptive.  Praise Him.

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