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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 19

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



This well organized chapter naturally divides into two sections. The first (Isaiah 19:1-15) falls into three stanzas or strophes: (a) strophe 1 (Isaiah 19:1-4) prophesies the overthrow of Egypt through civil strife and their suffering under a cruel ruler; (b) strophe 2 (Isaiah 19:5-10) prophesies the drying up of the Nile and the total collapse of Egypt’s economy; (c) strophe 3 (Isaiah 19:11-15) foretells the incompetence of Egypt’s vaunted wise men. The total picture that emerges in these fifteen verses is that of the total ruin of Egypt. “We may see in this section of the oracle Isaiah’s determination to persuade the court of Judah not to embark on any alliance with Egypt against Assyria.”(F1)

The second division of the chapter (Isaiah 19:16-25) is Messianic and is composed of five sub-paragraphs, each of them beginning with the words “in that day.” The paragraphs begin in Isaiah 19:16; Isaiah 19:18-19; Isaiah 19:23-24. Although the prophecies of this section could refer to historical events prior to Christianity, to the extent that this might be true, we believe that the great thrust of the passage is Messianic and that whatever fulfillments might have come in pre-Christian times such fulfillments were typical of the far more perfect fulfillments in Christ and the age of the Gospel. For example the return of Judah from captivity is far more adequately fulfilled in the acceptance of Christ by the “righteous remnant” of Israel and their release from the captivity of sin.

Verses 1-4

“The burden of Egypt. Behold Jehovah rideth upon a swift cloud, and cometh unto Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall tremble at his presence; and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst of it. And I will stir up the Egyptians against the Egyptians: and they shall fight everyone against his brother, and everyone against his neighbor; city against city, and kingdom against kingdom. And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst of it; and I will destroy the counsel thereof; and they shall seek unto the idols, and to the charmers, and to them that 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 shall rule over them, saith the Lord, Jehovah.”

We appreciate Cheyne’s rendition of the word “idols” in Isaiah 19:1; Isaiah 19:4, as “not-gods.”(F2) Commentators find little agreement as to when the civil strife indicated here actually took place. Payne identified it with “disorders preceding the accession of Piankhi in 715 B.C.”(F3) Newton placed it “in the times of Nebuchadnezzar.”(F4) The general opinion seems to link it with the period immediately prior to 714 B. C.

There is the same uncertainty about the identity of the “cruel lord” who will rule over Egypt. Hailey cited a number of such rulers who dominated Egypt: “Ashurbanipal (663 B.C.), Nebuchadnezzar, Cambyses (525 B.C.), and Xerxes I.”(F5) Hailey also noted that the Lord here might not have been speaking of an individual. Lowth pointed out that the word in the Hebrew for “lord” is actually plural; and he rendered the place “cruel lords,” referring to a succession of them.(F6) Peak also accepted this and added the name of “Artaxerxes Ochus”(F7) as another one of the “cruel lords.”

Various dates within Isaiah’s lifetime are suggested for this chapter, Rawlinson suggesting 735 B.C. and 690 B.C. as possible dates, depending upon the certain identity of the time of the “civil strife” and of the “cruel lords.” We consider the questions regarding all of these things as academic. It really makes no difference at all. God’s “burden” against Egypt was fulfilled many times in many centuries by many developments down to the present day; and there were repeated fulfillments in the pre-Christian centuries.

Verses 5-10

“And the waters shall fail from the sea, and the river shall be wasted and become dry. And the rivers shall become foul; and the streams of Egypt shall be diminished and dried up; the reeds and flags shall wither away. The meadows by the Nile, by the brink of the Nile, and all the sown fields of the Nile, shall become dry, and be no more. And the fishers shall lament, and all they that cast angle into the Nile shall mourn, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish. Moreover they that work in combed flax, and they that weave white cloth, shall be confounded. And the pillars of Egypt shall be broken in pieces; and they that work for hire shall be grieved in soul.”

This is a prophecy of total economic disaster for Egypt, brought about by the worst of all possible disasters in that land, the failure of the Nile River, here called the “sea.” Occasional severe droughts in Africa that interfered with the annual flooding of the river have occurred often enough that public records for ages have been kept detailing the exact inches of the rise and fall of the river. “The public record is kept at Cairo of the daily rise and fall of the river. When the Nile rises to a less height than 18’, a disastrous famine is the sure result, for the river will not overflow. When it rises to a greater height than 24’ a famine is almost as certain, for then the water does not drain off soon enough to allow the planting of fields.”(F8)

We do not know enough about the long history of Egypt and its Nile river to pinpoint the particular disaster Isaiah here foretold; but we may be very sure that it happened. It could have happened repeatedly. There is another consideration in the interpretation of this, i.e., that, “It may be a symbol of the wasting and decline of the nation, the death of her empire.”(F9) Thus there is no requirement to interpret this Nile disaster literally. Another possibility was mentioned by Cheyne, i.e., `What in times of civil disorders, great troubles were caused by the neglect of the dikes and reservoirs.”(F10) Such neglect would cause damage just like a drought or too great a flood. The canal system would be destroyed, and all methodical agriculture would fail. No matter how the economic collapse would come, God here foretold it; and no one has ever denied that it happened.

Verses 11-15

“The princes of Zoan are utterly foolish; the counsel of the wisest counselors of Pharaoh is become brutish: how say ye unto Pharaoh, I am the son of the wise, the son of ancient kings? Where then are thy wise men? and let them tell thee now; and let them know what Jehovah of hosts hath purposed concerning Egypt. The princes of Zoan are become fools, the princes of Memphis are deceived; they have caused Egypt to go astray, that are the corner-stone of her tribes. Jehovah hath mingled a spirit of perverseness in the midst of her; and they have caused Egypt to go astray in every work thereof, as a drunken man staggereth in his vomit. Neither shall there be for Egypt any work, which head or tail, palm branch or rush, may do.”

These three paragraphs give a terrible picture indeed of the disasters prophesied for the land of Egypt. It is the intelligence and competence of the central government itself that are mentioned here, designating it as a blundering, incompetent power led by fools and listening to the advice of fools! The proof of the foolishness of the government advisers is seen (1) in their ignorance of Jehovah and of his will, and their utter inability to see the disaster that lies at the end of their foolish plans (Isaiah 19:12), and also (2) in their blindness to the fact that their counsels have ended in disaster (Isaiah 19:13). “`Palm branch and rush’ and `head or tail’ are expressions used figuratively for `all classes of society.’“(F11)

Zoan and Memphis, mentioned here, were the northern and southern capitals of Egypt. “Zoan, or Tanis was a north-eastern capital near the border of Sinai. Memphis lay more to the south at the apex of the Delta.”(F12)

Regarding what is meant by the “pillars of Egypt” which the Lord prophesied should be broken (v. 10), Hailey noted that the pillars are, “Either (1) the working class of people, or (2) the whole economy, which is certainly a foundation of a nation’s existence.”(F13)

Verses 16-17

“In that day shall the Egyptians be like unto women; and they shall tremble and fear because of the shaking of the hand of Jehovah of hosts, which he shaketh over them. And the land of Judah shall become a terror unto Egypt; everyone to whom mention is made thereof shall be afraid, because of the purpose of Jehovah of hosts, which he purposeth against it.”

These two verses must be classified with the last half of the chapter because of the opening phrase, “In that day”; but except for this, they seem to be more in the spirit of the first division than with the last. The expression, “`In that day’ is a pointer, here, as elsewhere, to the `Day of the Lord.’ In this section of the chapter, Isaiah forsees the conversion of the Gentiles.”(F14)

Egypt, the most outstanding and oldest enemy of the Jews was cited first as an example of Gentiles who shall be converted; and the history of that conversion is here traced back to the fear and terror that the God of Israel struck into the hearts of the Egyptians during those epic visitations connected with the Exodus. This terror of the God of Israel led at last to their conversion to Christ.

Verse 18

“In that day there shall be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan, and swear to Jehovah of hosts; one shall be called the city of destruction.”

“Five cities” This verse is considered very difficult, not only as to the identity of these cities, but as to the significance of only five being mentioned, and even as to what is meant by the language of Canaan!

“The reference to the five cities is not to be taken literally”;(F15) We understand it as meaning “only a few.” One plausible meaning of the verse is that it refers to the establishment, through the Jews, of a foothold in Egypt, a kind of beach-head for monotheism, which would aid the spread of the gospel in ages to come. Rawlinson pointed out that this actually occurred after the conquest by Alexander the Great,(F16) who established large numbers of Jews in Alexandria; and that this became a great stronghold of monotheism. The LXX version of the Hebrew scriptures was produced there; and the rendition of the Hebrew into the Greek might even be called a prerequisite to the gospel age. This version (LXX) proved to be a key in the evangelism of the world, God’s first signal that the Greek language would be the language of inspiration in the New Testament. Significantly, this break-through occurred in Egypt. The translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, which, after Alexander the Great, became the universal language of the whole world was indeed significant. (1) It `froze’ all of the great prophecies pointing to the Messiah, so that they could never be altered; indeed the entire Old Testament was hardened into facts of history,” known by the whole world and incapable of being changed. Present day critics cannot get around the witness of the Septuagint (LXX) any more than could the infidels of Jesus’ day. The Septuagint (LXX) was translated about 250 B.C.

Verses 19-22

“In that day shall there be an altar to Jehovah in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to Jehovah. And it shall be a sign for a witness unto Jehovah of hosts in the land of Egypt; for they shall cry unto Jehovah because of oppressors, and he will send them a saviour and a defender, and he will deliver them. And Jehovah shall be known to Egypt and, the Egyptians shall know Jehovah in that day; yea, they shall worship with sacrifice and oblation, and shall vow a vow unto Jehovah, and shall perform it. And Jehovah will smite Egypt, smiting and healing; and they shall return unto Jehovah, and he will be entreated of them, and will heal them.”

Archer’s understanding of this we believe to be correct. He wrote:

“There would even be an altar erected unto Jehovah (Isaiah 19:19) in Egypt. Such an altar was erected by a Jewish high priest named Onias in the reign of Ptolemy VI; and this was an earnest of the later conversion of Egyptians to Christianity. And God here promised to send them a saviour (Isaiah 19:20). Historically, this was first fulfilled when Alexander the Great freed the oppressed peoples from their yoke of Persian submission; but in the higher dimension, it stands for the coming of the divine Saviour who would free them from their sins.”(F17)

Regarding this temple (including an altar, of course) that Onias built in Alexandria, Josephus has this:

“This Onias resolved to send to king Ptolemy and queen Cleopatra, to ask leave of them that he might build a temple in Egypt like that in Jerusalem, and might order Levites and priests out of their own stock. The chief reason why he was so desirous to do this, was, that he relied upon the prophet Isaiah who lived about six hundred years earlier, and foretold that there was certainly to be a temple built to Almighty God in Egypt.”(F18)

In like manner, Isaiah 19:21-22, are doubtless references to the “Christianization” of Egypt (and the whole world) during the Messianic age. Egypt served God with sacrifice and oblation “in the same sense as the rest of the Church (Malachi 1:1).”(F19) Isaiah, writing in the eighth century B.C., would of course, describe the worship of God in the only terms that the people of that time could understand.

Verse 23

“In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria; and the Egyptians shall worship with the Assyrians.”

What is envisioned here is the uniting of once hostile peoples in the service of God through Jesus Christ in the age of Messiah. This vision of a highway, in Isaiah’s prophecy is a reference to “the way of truth.” See also Isaiah 11:16; Isaiah 35:8; Isaiah 40:3; Isaiah 62:10. Thus, “the highway” appears as a favorite metaphor in Isaiah; and it should also be noted that it appears repeatedly through all sections of the prophecy, witnessing for the unity and integrity of Isaiah.

Dummelow pointed out that there were many helpful and preparatory influences leading up to the gospel age, such as, “Cyrus’ proclamation recognizing Jehovah as the God of heaven.”(F20) To this may be added the establishment of Jewish synagogues all over the world, the reading of the prophets (after the Torah was forbidden to be read) and the continued reading of both after the Torah could again be read publicly, the near-universal adoption of the Greek language, the translation of the LXX, etc. etc.

Verses 24-25

“In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth; for that Jehovah of hosts hath blessed them, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance.”

Isaiah 19:25 has been called, “The most universal word in the prophecy. Sublimely it is said that Egypt and Assyria will take their place alongside Israel as the peoples of God.”(F21) This passage cannot mean that Israel will be superior to Assyria and/or Egypt, nor that either of them will be superior to Israel. Here is the unity of all mankind in Christ Jesus. No one has any special entrance because of his race; and no one is denied on account of his race or former enmity against God or his people. “It only means that God’s ancient promise that in Abraham and his seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3) will now be fulfilled.”(F22)

What a glorious work God has accomplished in redeeming even his ancient enemies, bringing all men into one holy body of the redeemed. “How clearly all this was envisioned by God’s great prophet.”(F23) This marvelous conception of “breaking down the middle wall of partition,” destroying the enmity between races, inviting all men to share and share alike in the gospel, the same terms of entry for everyone ever born on earth, the same holy standard of conduct for all, etc., etc. - All of these wonderful things constitute the burden of the entire New Testament. This grand new fellowship will be the New Israel of God, which is the Messianic Church. See Romans 9:24-26, and 1 Peter 2:9-10. “These final two verses look beyond all historical events known to us; above all, it is their symbolical teaching that is important.”(F24)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 19". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/isaiah-19.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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