Tuesdays with Isaiah (Chapter 20)

Nearly as brief as Isaiah 4 (the shortest chapter in the book), Isaiah 20 contains a brief but memorable message concerning the upcoming conquest and exile of Egypt and Cush.  While the chapter is about Egypt and Cush, it’s for the Philistines and Israelites.  The message from God, acted out by Isaiah over a three-year period, warns of the folly of depending on human deliverance rather than trusting in the Lord.

Chapter 20 opens with a timestamp: “In the year that the commander in chief, who was sent by Sargon the king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought against it and captured it” (1).  Historians date this attack by Assyria against the Philistine city of Ashdod around 711 BC.

“At this time” (2), the Lord speaks to Isaiah and gives him clear instructions: “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet” (2).  Obediently, Isaiah “did so, walking naked and barefoot” (2).  This command to walk “naked” raises some questions.  Was Isaiah completely without covering or did he have a loin cloth on?  In either case, this must have been an awkward, humiliating assignment for a court prophet like Isaiah.  His dignity was disrobed.  Yet he obeyed the instructions of His Lord and Master.  And not just for a short time! In verse 3, the Lord declares Isaiah “waked naked and barefoot for three years.”  Again, we don’t know for sure if this means continuously for three years or at intermittent points over three years.  But either way, the humiliation Isaiah felt was not short-lived.  Yet, he obeyed.

The Lord then addresses his people to explain the point of Isaiah’s memorable actions:  “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles” (3-4).  These captive exiles from Egypt and Cush, will be marched out the country “with buttocks uncovered” (4).

As a result of this humbling and exile of the Egyptians and Cushites, those who had trusted in these two nations for protection from the Assyrians “shall be dismayed” (5).  We know from verse 6 that one nation who had pinned their hopes on Egyptian protection was the “coastland” nation of Philistia.  As they see the Egyptians and Cushites taken captive, their hopes are dashed: “Behold, this is what has happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria!  And we, how shall we escape?” (6).

But since Israel showed the same penchant to trust in Egypt for help (see chapters 30-31), and since Isaiah was a prophet in Israel, they are the primary intended audience for this message.  The Lord gives them a walking parable of the folly of trusting in human deliverance rather than in the One, True God.

Behold Your God

The Lord strongly and strikingly warns against trusting in human deliverance.  The Lord directed His prophet, Isaiah, to speak and show the folly of trusting Egyptian and Cushite deliverance.  Isaiah testified with words (“the Lord spoke by Isaiah”—2) and by actions (“Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign”—3).  For three years, God sought to warn Israel not to follow the Philistines who looked south to Egypt for help against the Assyrian threat.  Looking to Egypt and Cush, like the fabled “emperor’s clothes”, left the Assyrians (and Israelites) bare and exposed.  Here we see God’s patience as He gives ample, memorable warning to His people. Warnings are a sign of His love; He seeks to redirect our lives away from destruction.

The Lord expects His spokesmen to follow His instructions even when bring shame and dismay.

Isaiah receives instructions from the Lord to both speak out and act out God’s warning.  As He would later do with Ezekiel, the Lord directs Isaiah to do something that was embarrassing and may have seemed over the top: walk naked (perhaps with loin cloth) for (parts or all of) three years.  As he walks naked and barefoot, he delivers the message God gave him (summarized in verses 3-6). God’s spokesmen are His servants; servants obey the will of their master.  Isaiah experienced some of the feelings the Egyptians and Cushites would have when they would be led away by the Assyrians: “dismayed and ashamed” (5). 

Here Am I

I must obey the Lord’s instructions even when they cause personal shame or dismay.  As I was studying this chapter in Isaiah, I was writing a chapter in our book on marriage on “hardness of heart” (Mark 10).  I sensed I needed to cover the warning verses where Jesus speaks of divorce and remarriage as adultery.  This is a view I have held for years but rarely spoken/written about.  It causes tension and turmoil.  But like Isaiah, I must speak out His Word even if it creates some awkwardness for me and others. As I have been called to be a preacher, I must be ready to do what God says, even if it puts me in an awkward situation. 

It is a great honour to bear shame for the Lord.  After Isaiah’s obedience, the Lord publicly commends him as “my servant Isaiah” (3). Isaiah, like the Lord Jesus, would experience nakedness and shame in following God’s will.  But like Christ, Isaiah would receive God’s commendation for faithfully obeying.  His shame would ultimately be his glory.  Like Isaiah, I must live for God’s commendation so that one day I may hear Him say, “Well, done my good and faithful servant.”

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