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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Isaiah 19

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 19 The Burden of Egypt.

For untold centuries Egypt had been a mighty power in that part of the world. It had constantly overseen the affairs of Canaan, and drawn tribute from its rulers. Inevitably there had been times when it was comparatively weak and divided, even for a time partly overrun, but it had always become strong again, and when strong it had looked on Canaan as its own, or in weaker times as its ally, until the conquest of Canaan by Assyria which had brought Assyria to the very door of Egypt.

From its past history of strength Egypt would be seen as an admirable ally to have against the Assyrians. Any overtures from them would therefore be tempting.

But now Isaiah prophesied (probably earlier than the Cushite visit in chapter 18) that it would be able to offer nothing. It would soon be riddled by civil war and overcome by a powerful enemy. The Egypt that was seen as so strong would become weak, and its economy would collapse, and it would become a conquered people. This was, in fact, the story of Egypt in the second part of the 8th century BC. And, says Isaiah, it would be Yahweh’s doing, for God is the supreme God Who controls history, and He will make Egypt weak. However finally it will result in both Egypt and Assyria turning to Yahweh.

But in Isaiah’s mind is not only the fate of Egypt but also the need for a warning of the folly of trusting in Egypt. It will no longer be strong, and it will no longer be reliable (if it ever was). It will be under divine judgment, it will be divided by civil war, it will be ruled by outsiders, it will be economically bankrupt, and its wisdom would have become folly. Thus Hezekiah should beware of looking to Egypt. He should recognise that all that has happened, and will happen, to Egypt is as a result of the action of Yahweh. Therefore it is clear that it is Yahweh, and Him alone in Whom he should trust, Who alone determines all things, and Who holds Egypt, and all others, in His hands.

Analysis.

In the analysis the question arises as to whether Isaiah 19:16-25 (a series of four ‘in that days’) is to be treated as one large whole paralleling Isaiah 19:1, or is to be treated as a separate passage. In our view much is to be said for the former and we will therefore work on that basis. But in the end it makes little difference, although the way we will analyse it gives the more powerful parallel.

a The burden of Egypt. Behold Yahweh rides on a swift cloud, and comes to Egypt. And the idols of Egypt will be removed at his presence, and the heart of Egypt will melt in the midst of it (Isaiah 19:1).

b And I will stir up the Egyptians against the Egyptians, and they will fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour, city against city, and kingship against kingship (Isaiah 19:2).

c And the spirit of Egypt will be made void in its midst, and I will destroy its counsel (Isaiah 19:3 a).

d And they will seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to those who have familiar spirits, and to the wizards, and I will give over the Egyptians into the hand of a cruel lord, and a fierce king will rule over them, says the Lord, Yahweh of hosts (Isaiah 19:3-4).

e And the waters will fall from the sea, and the river will be wasted and will become dry, and the rivers will smell. The streams of Egypt will be diminished and dried up, the reeds and rushes will wither away. The meadows by the Nile, by the brink of the Nile, and all that is sown by the Nile, will become dry, be driven away and be no more (Isaiah 19:5-7).

e The fishermen also will lament, and all those who cast hook into the Nile will mourn, and those who spread nets on the water will languish, moreover those who work in combed flax, and those who weave white cloth (or ‘cotton’) will be ashamed. And her pillars will be broken in pieces, and all those who work for hire will be grieved in soul (Isaiah 19:8-10).

d The princes of Zoan are utterly foolish. The counsel of the wisest counsellors of Pharaoh has become brutish. How can you say to Pharaoh, “I am the son of the wise, the son of ancient kings”? Where then are your wise men? Then let them tell you (the truth) now, and let them know what Yahweh of hosts has purposed concerning Egypt. The princes of Zoan have become fools, the princes of Noph are deceived. They have caused Egypt to go astray, who are the corner stone of her tribes (Isaiah 19:11-13).

c Yahweh has mingled a spirit of perverseness in the midst of her, and they have caused Egypt to go astray in every one of her works, as a drunken man staggers in his vomit (Isaiah 19:14).

b Nor will there be for Egypt any work which head or tail, palm branch or rush, may do (Isaiah 19:15).

a The five ‘in that day’ statements. In that day Egypt will be afraid of Judah. In that day five cities will speak the language of Canaan. In that day Egypt will know Yahweh. In that day Egypt and Assyria will be in harmony. In that day Egypt, Assyria and Israel will all be at one under Yahweh (Isaiah 19:16-25).

In ‘a’ Yahweh comes to Egypt riding on a swift cloud, symbol of His pre-eminence and power, and the idols are removed and their hearts will melt, and in the parallel Egypt will even be afraid of Judah, idolatry will be swept away and Yahweh will be pre-eminent. In ‘b’ civil war will render Egypt leaderless, and in the parallel neither head nor tail (leadership nor prophets, compare Isaiah 9:14-15) will be able to do anything about it. In ‘c’ the spirit of Egypt will be made void in its midst, and Yahweh will destroy its counsel, and in the parallel Yahweh will have mingled a spirit of perverseness in the midst of her, so that they cause Egypt to go astray in every one of her works, as a drunken man staggers in his vomit. In ‘d’ they seek to idolatry and the occult, and are handed over by Yahweh to a cruel lord, and in the parallel the princes of Zoan are utterly foolish, the counsel of the wisest counsellors of Pharaoh has become brutish and their lack of wisdom is stressed, for if they were wise they would be able to tell what Yahweh is bringing on Egypt. In ‘e’ Egypt’s main resources will fail, and in the parallel her workers will be unable to do their work satisfactorily.


Verse 1-2

‘The burden of Egypt. Behold Yahweh rides on a swift cloud, and comes to Egypt. And the idols of Egypt will be removed at his presence, and the heart of Egypt will melt in the midst of it. And I will stir up the Egyptians against the Egyptians, and they will fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour, city against city, and kingship against kingship.’

The idea of Yahweh riding triumphantly on the clouds is found in Psalms 18:10-15; Psalms 104:3, but Baal was regularly known as ‘the rider on the clouds’ and the concept was thus a common one and probably borrowed from there. The idea is of Yahweh’s sovereignty over the world as he looks down on men, and of His heavenly and rapid approach.

Coming to Egypt in His power He will throw it into disarray. The idols will be thwarted at His presence, the people will be in fear and totally demoralised. This idea will be amplified in Isaiah 19:16-25, where Yahweh will conquer Egypt for Himself..

And He will cause civil war to break out, Egyptian against Egyptian, and brother against brother, and city and petty king will war against each other. And this was a true picture of Egypt prior to their invasion by Cush and partly explains the success of that invasion. It was, however, still strong enough to dissuade Assyria from advancing across its borders, even though they did have to be bought off with a gift of horses. But the nations who sought Egypt’s help saw the Cushites as excessively powerful precisely because they had defeated Egypt, for the nations had not appreciated the dire position that Egypt was in. In their eyes only a super-race could have conquered Egypt.


Verse 3-4

‘And the spirit of Egypt will be made void in its midst, and I will destroy its counsel, and they will seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to those who have familiar spirits, and to the wizards, and I will give over the Egyptians into the hand of a cruel lord, and a fierce king will rule over them, says the Lord, Yahweh of hosts.’

The weak and demoralised state Egypt will find itself in is made apparent. Their ‘spirit is void in their midst’, all heart will have gone, their rulers will be weak, ineffective and lacking in wisdom, unable to give proper counsel and make right decisions. Compare Isaiah 19:14 where it is made clear that this is the work of Yahweh.

And it is because of this that they will seek to all the means of divination because they have nowhere reliable to turn to. Man tends to seek to the occult when he is spiritually bankrupt. But it will do them no good. All their idols and diviners cannot help them. There is here a reminder to Judah of the folly of trusting in the same things (Isaiah 8:19). The picture is a pathetic one of desperate people with nowhere to turn. Certainly not a people to rely on!

It is a reminder that finally the plight of all nations is in the hands of God. It is the coming of Yahweh riding on the clouds that has done this. He it is Who is responsible for their political dilemma and weakness.

The result will be conquest by an outsider. The Cushites under their princes Kashta and Piankhi, who were in fact strongly influenced by Egyptian culture, first conquered upper Egypt. Then Piankhi successfully moved down into lower Egypt, although he did not consolidate his position. That was left to his successor Shabaka who completed the task. Now a cruel lord and a fierce king ruled over them. And this was all due, says Isaiah, to the action of the sovereign Lord, Yahweh of hosts.

The prophecy has in mind that Egypt’s future destiny is to be a conquered people. In the not too distant future Egypt will be occupied by the Assyrian empire under Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal of Assyria (see chapter 20), followed by occupation by Babylon, then by Persia, then by the Grecian empire, and then by Rome. Its time of great power was over. So the main point is that Egypt cannot be trusted because it is itself weak and from now on subject to conquest.


Verse 5-6

‘And the waters will fall from the sea, and the river will be wasted and will become dry, and the rivers will smell. The streams of Egypt will be diminished and dried up, the reeds and rushes will wither away.’

Not only will they be worn down by war, but the very basis of their life will fail. The Nile’s provision for the country will become minimal. This would probably be due partly to a failure of the waters of the Nile and partly as a result of the Egyptians failing to maintain the irrigation systems satisfactorily due to their despondent condition. Here the Nile is thought of as Egypt’s ‘sea’. It was constantly busy, with ships and boats ever on the move up and down, and at the time of flood often even looked like a sea in parts of Egypt. But not at this time.

The Egyptians saw the Nile as a god, and they would see this partial drying up of the Nile as evidence that even the gods had turned against them. The canals also would become a trickle, or even completely dried up, and reeds and rushes would die where they usually proliferated. The Nile was the life-blood of Egypt. Thus Egypt would become a dying land.


Verse 7-8

‘The meadows by the Nile, by the brink of the Nile, and all that is sown by the Nile, will become dry, be driven away and be no more. The fishermen also will lament, and all those who cast hook into the Nile will mourn, and those who spread nets on the water will languish.’

The centrality of the Nile to Egypt’s life comes out here. The fields which were fruitful because of their nearness to the Nile will cease to be fruitful, they will become dried up, they will cease to bear. And beyond them lay the desert. Those who fish in her with hook and net will discover that they catch little, for the fish will be sparse, and the fishermen will thus lament and mourn and languish. These methods of fishing are well depicted on Egyptian monuments.

Note the continuing threefold emphases indicating the completeness of the devastation. ‘Meadows - brink - all that is sown’, ‘dry - driven away - no more’, ‘fishermen - cast hook - spread nets’, ‘lament - mourn - languish’.


Verse 9-10

‘Moreover those who work in combed flax, and those who weave white cloth (or ‘cotton’) will be ashamed. And her pillars will be broken in pieces, and all those who work for hire will be grieved in soul.’

The blight will even affect the makers of combed flax and linen. Supplies will have dried up, and what is available will produce shoddy products. The entrepreneurs, the pillars of industry, will be bankrupted, their workforces unemployed and unpaid resulting in grief of soul. The greatness of Egypt and its wealth will be no more. It is a picture of total economic collapse.


Verses 11-13

‘The princes of Zoan are utterly foolish. The counsel of the wisest counsellors of Pharaoh has become brutish. How can you say to Pharaoh, “I am the son of the wise, the son of ancient kings”? Where then are your wise men? Then let them tell you (the truth) now, and let them know what Yahweh of hosts has purposed concerning Egypt. The princes of Zoan have become fools, the princes of Noph are deceived. They have caused Egypt to go astray, who are the corner stone of her tribes.’

Isaiah points derisively to those in the capital city Zoan, in the north-eastern Delta, who are responsible for major national decisions. They will become fools, the advice of even the wisest will be like the advice of brute beasts. They make strong claims for themselves, tracing their descent to previous wise men and to ancient kings. Well, if they are so wise let them speak the truth about what is happening. Let them appreciate what Yahweh has purposed concerning Egypt. Let them face up to the facts and declare them.

The wisdom of Egypt was proverbial (see 1 Kings 4:30; Acts 7:22). But it will be so no more. Indeed men will wonder at how foolish they have become. His verdict is then repeated, and Noph brought into the reckoning. Noph is better known as Memphis, a former capital city in the southern Delta and an important city. At this time of civil war it would be the headquarters of one of the factions. But in these cities the tribal cornerstones will let them down. The ‘cornerstone’ refers to the leadership, who by their behaviour will reveal themselves as anything but cornerstones.


Verse 14

‘Yahweh has mingled a spirit of perverseness in the midst of her, and they have caused Egypt to go astray in every one of her works, as a drunken man staggers in his vomit. Nor will there be for Egypt any work which head or tail, palm branch or rush, may do.’

God has been at work among the leaders resulting in perverse and bewildered behaviour. The wisdom that they claimed in Isaiah 19:11 is revealed to be totally lacking. The result is that all that they do is foolish and unwise. They are like drunken men staggering about to and fro and falling into their own vomit, that is, the mess that they have made of things.

‘Nor will there be for Egypt any work which head or tail, palm branch or rush, may do.’ See Isaiah 9:14-15. There these pictures referred to the leadership who were the head and the palm branch, and to the prophets who were the tail and the rushes. Neither civic leadership nor religious savants will be able to do anything sensible or worthwhile.

So Egypt is facing political, economic and social collapse. In view of that it would be folly to place trust in them. But in spite of this there is good news ahead. God has not determined to finally destroy Egypt like He has Babylon. One day, ‘in that day’, His blessing will come on them through the intervention of His own people.

In That Day - Yahweh’s Universal Triumph (Isaiah 19:16-25).

Here there follow five examples of what will happen ‘in that day’. In Egypt five was the number of completeness. Here we have therefore a full and complete description of the final end of Egypt.

‘In that day’ is a vague time reference which describes something that is to happen in the future as a result of what has been mentioned. It means ‘in the day when this prophecy is fulfilled whenever that might be’. Here it is being used to declare what will happen following what has previously been described, without any time limit being given.

It is in complete contrast to what has gone before. Egypt’s self-destruction will be followed by Yahweh’s deliverance. In a foreshortened vision of the future Isaiah sees God’s final purpose for Egypt. We must always keep in mind that the prophets were not trying to foretell specific events, they were proclaiming what God would do ‘in the future.’ Thus here Isaiah foresees the turmoil of Egypt going on, and even resulting in their being a subject nation, but as something which will finally result in God’s blessing on it. He knew that this must be so, for it is finally God’s purpose to bless the nations, and Egypt was not excepted.

The turmoil of Egypt, having begun, continued through the centuries. From then on Egypt, with an occasional resurgence, went ever downwards. When, however, the good news of Jesus Christ flowed out from Jerusalem Egypt was one of the first to respond and outwardly became a largely Christian nation. Thus what is described found its fulfilment then. Whether it is to find an even deeper fulfilment on earth in the future only time will tell, but we do know that its ultimate fulfilment will be in the new heaven and the new earth (Isaiah 66:22; Revelation 21:1).


Verse 16-17

‘In that day will Egypt be like a woman, and it will tremble and fear because of the shaking of the hand of Yahweh of hosts, which he shakes over it. And the land of Judah will become a terror to Egypt, and everyone to whom mention is made of it will be afraid, because of the purpose of Yahweh of hosts which he purposes towards it.’

This is a reversal of the usual position. In the past it was always Judah that feared Egypt, and trembled at the approach of Egyptian armies. But now the tables will be turned. It is Egypt that will quail at the approach of Judah. They will have to face up to Judah’s God, recognising His sovereignty. Judah will become predominant.

‘Be like a woman.’ That is weak and easily frightened.

It may be that all this is simply expressing the low state to which Egypt have come by exaggeration. It will be so low that they will even become afraid of Judah!

But it may be that the prophet is describing in terms of his own day and understanding the reversal of roles in the future. Instead of Judah being subject to Egypt, Egypt will be subject to Judah. God’s people will become so effective that Egypt yields before them. It may thus be intended to be a picture in prophetic terms of the triumphant expansion of the Kingly Rule of God, and the establishing of the throne of David. ‘Out of Zion will go forth the Law, and the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 2:3). And Egypt will tremble and submit.

It came about in a different way than anticipated when the soldiers of Christ invaded Egypt with the Gospel of Christ, and with the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12) in their hand, and Egypt, at least outwardly, trembled and submitted to His rule. Thus when the multitude which no man can number are assembled before the throne of God (Revelation 7:9), Egypt will be represented there. (As always, by the remnant who in this case will be the true Egypt).


Verse 18

‘In that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan, and swear to Yahweh of hosts. One will be called ‘the city of destruction’.

When related to Egypt the number ‘five’ is of especial significance. It contained within it the essence of completeness. Thus these ‘five cities’ are like the ‘seven churches’ of Revelation. They speak of five major cities, but as comprising all cities. And yet at the same time they are a reminder that just as it is ‘a remnant’ of Israel that are the holy seed (Isaiah 6:13), so will it be of Egypt. Five cities are a significant fraction of the whole.

Furthermore Egyptians were very proud of their language. They regularly judged the manhood of others by whether they could speak Egyptian. They considered that if a man could not speak Egyptian he was not really a man. They saw language as the essence of what a man is. But now they would gladly forsake their language for the despised language of Canaan. It will be a complete reversal of their situation. They will turn from their culture and their gods so that they may serve the living God and talk His language. Indeed they will make their oaths to Him and become His people. It is a picture of their total submission to Yahweh.

‘One will be called ‘the city of destruction’.’ The naming of this city presents the final picture of what will have happened. All that was Egypt (as seen by an Israelite) would be destroyed. Its pride, its arrogance, its mastery, its gods. And this will be symbolised in the renaming of the city. All that was displeasing to Yahweh will have been destroyed, and Egypt will be in submission to Him.


Verse 19-20

‘In that day there will be an altar to Yahweh in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at its border to Yahweh, and it will be a sign and a witness to Yahweh of hosts in the land of Egypt. For they will cry to Yahweh because of the oppressors, and he will send them a deliverer and a defender, and he will deliver them.’

These are further evidence of their total conversion to Yahweh, again in terms of the symbols of the day. The setting up of an altar was a token of submission to the god for whom the altar was set up, in this case the living God (compare Joshua 22:34), and its being in the midst declared that it was for all Egypt. It would be conceived of as a memorial altar for no other altar would be conceivable to Israel outside God’s land. The setting up of a pillar on the border would be a sign to all who entered of the presence of God there (Genesis 28:18). Thus they would be a sign and a witness to Yahweh of hosts for the whole of Egypt. And that is what the church of Christ in Egypt became.

But the altar that would be set up is the cross, and the sacrifice that will be offered is our Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 13:10; Hebrews 9:26-28; Hebrews 10:12-14). For He is the one sacrifice for sin for ever, after Whose offering no further sacrifice is required.

‘For they will cry to Yahweh because of the oppressors, and he will send them a deliverer and a defender, and he will deliver them.’ Not only will Egypt receive the word of Yahweh, but they will receive a Deliverer, a Saviour. And He will bring them deliverance far more wonderful than Isaiah could ever know. For he will deliver them from themselves, and from sin and from the evils of the world and from Satan. This reference to a deliverer could only, in terms of Isaiah’s thought, be to Immanuel Who was coming (Isaiah 7:14), the root of Jesse (11., 1-5, 10), the son who was to be miraculously born of a virginal woman (Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 9:6), the Saviour, the Prince of Peace.

The pictures are idealistic, but even in spite of the failure of the church to be what it should be, and the reversals suffered since the invasion of Islam, nothing will prevent the final triumph of Yahweh in Egypt. For the remnant have continued in Egypt through the centuries (in the Coptic church) and it will be fulfilled in the new heaven and the new earth when all who are there of Egypt will own His sway, and will worship Him. And God will be all in all. And that is what essentially Isaiah is declaring here. That is his vision.


Verse 21

‘And Yahweh will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know Yahweh in that day. Yes they will worship with sacrifice and oblation, and will vow a vow to Yahweh and will perform it.’

The essence of this is conversion to Yahweh, leaving behind their own gods. They will know and acknowledge Yahweh. They will come before Him in worship and praise. They will be committed to Him and vow to Him and perform their vows. Their lives will be wholly His.

No doubt Isaiah’s hearers were incredulous. The thought of Egyptians turning from their idols to serve the living God would have seemed incredible. And yet it did happen. For in the early centuries AD there was widespread conversion to the Jewish but universal Scriptures and to a Jewish but universal Messiah as Egyptians responded to the call of Christ, and the Alexandrine church became famous throughout the world. And a Christian church has survived there through all the trials of the centuries and will emerge triumphant at last, for among them are God’s chosen remnant who represent the whole.


Verse 22

‘And Yahweh will smite Egypt, smiting and healing, and they will return to Yahweh, and he will be entreated of them, and he will heal them.’

This summarises all that has gone before in the chapter. Yahweh will smite Egypt, but in the end it is that He might heal. This is at the root of all God’s activity in the world. In microcosm it is the picture of world history. He has smitten that He might heal.


Verse 23

‘In that day there will be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come to Egypt, and the Egyptian to Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.’

In Isaiah’s day, and in the conceptions of Judah, there were two great nations, one to the north, Assyria, and one to the south, Egypt (to the east was desert and to the west the sea). They could be seen as representing all nations. Between them was bitter enmity. They were irreconcilable. The highway between them, which led through Palestine, was a highway for armies, a highway of conquest. And so seemingly it would always be. And yet here was the impossible promise that one day a highway of peace and brotherhood would be built along which each would pass to the other, and they would worship the same God together.

And in the early days of the Christian church this became so. The universal church was united as one and met together in councils and in fellowship and worshipped together, acknowledging that they were one, all serving a Jewish, but universal, Messiah and Deliverer. And in days to come at the final triumph of Christ the true remnants of Egypt and Assyria will be one with all nations, serving and worshipping Yahweh.


Verse 24-25

‘In that day will Israel be the third with Egypt, and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, because Yahweh of hosts has blessed them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.’

Finally this is all related to Israel. Here Israel represents the future Israel made up of the remnants of both Judah and Israel. And with Egypt and Assyria they will be all one together in the worship of Yahweh. All will be a blessing to the world. Egypt will be His people (compare Isaiah 10:24; Isaiah 43:6-7; Exodus 5:1; Hosea 1:10; Hosea 2:23; Jeremiah 11:4), Assyria the work of His hands (compare Isaiah 60:12; Isaiah 64:8; Psalms 119:73; Psalms 138:8), Israel His inheritance. These are descriptions which were once reserved for Israel but are now applied to all, for there is neither Jew nor Gentile. All have become one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). The mightiest nations of the world, together with the chosen nation, will be united to serve Yahweh. It is Isaiah’s way of depicting God’s universal triumph.

Note the advancement in the spiritual life depicted. First trembling and fear before God and His ministers (Isaiah 19:16-17), then a change of language, the sign of the acceptance of a new way of life and thought, followed by a commitment to Yahweh (Isaiah 19:18), then the outward declaration of their new belief and their open admission that they are God’s, as represented by the altar and the pillar (Isaiah 19:19), then the deepening in the knowledge of God, and the offering of worship, praise and thanksgiving, together with specific commitments to His service (Isaiah 19:21), then the sense of oneness with all who serve God (Isaiah 19:21), and finally their becoming a blessing to the world (Isaiah 19:24-25).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 19:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/isaiah-19.html. 2013.

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