Concerning Ethiopia (18:1-7): This prophecy was probably given in the days of Hezekiah (2 Kings 19-20). The King of Ethiopia had heard that Assyria’s great army was marching south toward them. He sent messengers up the Nile asking the surrounding nations to form an alliance. Judah was also asked to join, but Isaiah told the messengers to return home because Judah needed only God’s help to repel the Assyrians. Isaiah prophesied that Assyria would be destroyed at the proper time (37:21-38). This passage concerning Ethiopia (Cush) provides the transition to the following oracle which is explicitly concerning Egypt. In fact, chapter 18 introduces a block of material spanning chapter’s 18, 19, and 20, all of which are concerned with Egypt in one way or another.
Concerning Egypt (19:1-25): Chapter 18 has established the general context within which this chapter is to be read and understood. It is still Egypt as a potential ally against Assyria which is in view. The message is the same as it has been. Judah will find no security in looking to Egypt. On the contrary, Egypt’s only help is in Judah’s God, whom she is destined finally to acknowledge as her God also. There are two parts in this passage, the first (vv. 1-15) shows the Lord coming to Egypt to visit devastating judgment upon her; the second (vv. 16-25) points to her ultimate repentance and incorporation into the kingdom of God. So this chapter resonates with two great themes of prophetic preaching: judgment and salvation.
Judgment (19:1-15): By Isaiah’s time Egypt’s era of imperialistic glory, the New Kingdom period, was long since past and the land was ruled by Ethiopians. In the succeeding centuries she was to be a prize sought after and seized by one ambitious tyrant after another. Again and again Egypt proved to be an ineffective and unreliable ally of the small states of Palestine in their struggles against Assyria and Babylon. In three stanzas Isaiah identifies Egypt’s three crucial weaknesses: her religion (vv. 1-4), her total dependence on the Nile (vv. 5-10) and her false wisdom (vv. 11-15). Egypt’s religion was idolatrous and polytheistic, and had its natural reflex in social fragmentation. It could not unite the nation, and a nation without unity cannot long endure. Humanly speaking, the Nile was Egypt’s lifeline. Should the Nile fail, so would all the nation’s life-sustaining activity. The encroaching desert would soon swallow it up and turn it into a wasteland. And finally, its wise men were fools. Because they lacked any understanding of the Lord’s plans, they were powerless to counteract them. With such counselors Pharaoh, and all Egypt with him, would stagger blindly into disgrace and ruin.
Salvation (19:16-25): Here, as so often in Isaiah, the expression “in that day” points beyond the immediate horizon of unfolding historical events to what will finally be the case when the Lord’s purposes are fully realized. The opening segment (vv. 16-17) moves against the background of verses 1-15 and indicates that the first step towards Egypt’s incorporation into the kingdom of God will be fear, fear that arises from judgment already experienced and from the prospect of even worse to come. Such fear is a healthy thing. It leads here to the second segment (v. 18), Isaiah sees an eventual turning to the Lord so complete that some cities, including one which had been the center for worship of the sun god that will go so far as to adopt the language of Canaan (Hebrew). The third segment (vv. 19-22) shows the new allegiance of the Egyptians being expressed in action and experience. Egypt will acknowledge the Lord even as Israel knows Him. The final segments in verses 23 and 24-25 show us a world in which open borders and common worship witness the fact that ancient hostilities are at last resolved (v. 23), and in which Israel finally fulfils the destiny marked out for her in the promises made to Abraham so long ago: a blessing on the earth (v. 24b). It will be a peace brought about not by human might or wisdom, but by the Lord Almighty, whose blessing closes the chapter, arching over the whole scene like a brilliant rainbow (v. 25).
There are many questions left unanswered here, but if we are to be guided by the broad sweep of Isaiah’s vision as the rest of the book unfolds it to us, we will not look for fulfillment of this dream in some political or religious realignment of nations in the Middle East, nor or in the future. We will seek it rather in the eventual triumph of God’s kingdom through the suffering, death and exaltation of Israel’s Messiah, and ours. True worship is based on reconciliation and there is no way to true reconciliation that bypasses the cross.
Isaiah 18:1 – 19:25 Reflection Questions:
Are you relying on God’s help daily?
What message do you get about God’s patience in this study concerning Egypt?
What are some weaknesses that you need to bring to God for his help?
What does the fear of the Lord mean to you? Do you have a healthy fear of God?