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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 20

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



Although this chapter has the same subject as the previous one, it came at a later date and was attended by different circumstances. There are several things of particular interest in these brief verses: (1) there is the three-year witness of Isaiah’s going naked and barefoot; (2) there is the only reference to Sargon in the Old Testament; and (3) the absolute promise of God to Judah of their deliverance from this particular threat of the Assyrians.

Our title here mentions only Egypt, although it also includes Ethiopia. Both countries at the time of this prophecy were united under an Ethiopian dynasty.

Verse 1

“In the year that Tartan came unto Ashdod, when Sargon the king of Assyria sent him, and he fought against Ashdod and took it.”

Ashdod was one of the five principal cities of the Philistines, the others being Gaza, Ashkelon, Ekron and Gath. Ashdod is called Azotas in Acts 8:40. It was a stronghold, a kind of key to the capture of Egypt, and it was the site of a temple of Dagon, which was destroyed by Samson.

Until recently, Tartan was thought to be the personal name of Sargon’s general in charge of the war against Ashdod; but, “The word is not a proper name, but a title of office, the equivalent of `commander-in-chief.’“(F1) Until excavations in this century, there were some who questioned the very existence of Sargon; but the excavations have revealed again the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible. “Sargon founded the last and greatest of the Assyrian dynasties; he was the successor to Shalmaneser and the father of Sennacherib.”(F2) In the Bible, Shalmaneser is apparently the conqueror; but it seems that the final phase of the conquest was completed by Sargon in 722 B.C., a fact confirmed in 2 Kings 18:10 in the statement, not that “He took it,” but that “They took it.” Sargon succeeded Shalmaneser just before the siege of Samaria was completed in 722 B.C., and reigned till 705 B.C., when he was succeeded by Sennacherib.”(F3)

“It is possible to date this passage very precisely. Isaiah 20:1 makes mention of the fact that Isaiah’s symbolic act (going naked and barefoot) was interpreted to the people in the year that Ashdod fell to Sargon’s commander-in-chief. Sargon’s inscriptions date that event in 711 B.C.”(F4) Since Isaiah had already been walking naked and barefoot for a period of three years, that symbolical protest actually began in 714 B.C.

Verse 2

“At that time Jehovah spake by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, Go, and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put thy shoe from off thy foot. And he did so, walking naked and barefoot.”

“Sackcloth was regarded as the appropriate dress for prophets; it was made of the coarse hair of the goat.”(F5) As for the instruction here to walk naked and barefoot, it is a mistake to think that Isaiah was totally nude. Hailey’s quotation from Delitzsch has this: “What Isaiah was directed to do was simply opposed to common custom, not to moral decency.”(F6) No doubt, he actually wore a loin cloth or some other very abbreviated garment. This instead of the prophet’s customary dress was sensational enough. It is amazing that very respected commentators will flatly contradict the Word of God on a matter of this kind. Barnes pointed out that men consider it beneath the dignity of the royal prophet to have gone so long without his clothes. Lowth suggested that he walked naked and barefoot only for three days, which stood for three years!(F7) “Rosemuller supposed this to mean `only at intervals’ for three years.”(F8) To all such objections and suggestions, there remains the solid answer of the text: “And he did so, walking naked and barefoot.”

Verses 3-4

“And Jehovah said, Like as my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and a wonder concerning Egypt and concerning Ethiopia; so shall the king of Assyria lead away the captives of Egypt, and the exiles of Ethiopia, young and old, naked and barefoot, and with buttocks uncovered to the shame of Egypt.”

Here again we have an example of God’s built-in proof of the prior existence of predictive prophecies. Even the wildest imagination cannot suppose that Isaiah was commanded to do a thing like that indicated here after the event prophesied had already taken place. See the note at the end of Isaiah 19.

Regarding the reason behind God’s purpose in this chapter, it was pointed out by Rawlinson that, “Isaiah’s mission was to discourage Judea’s joining Ashdod (and her Egyptian allies)”(F9) in their war against Sargon. In order to do this, “For a full three years prior to the fall of Ashdod, the prophet was a walking symbol of utter humiliation and destitution in the streets of Jerusalem.”(F10)

There were overtones of this spectacle (Isaiah’s walking naked and barefoot) that pointed to a similar fate for Judah; but that would not come from the Assyrians, but from the Babylonians. Therefore, this oracle is clearly stated to apply to the united power of Ethiopia-Egypt.

Isaiah seems to have been successful in persuading Judah to avoid taking sides with Ethiopia-Egypt, because there is no record that Sargon attacked Jerusalem. That came later in the reign of Sennacherib his son.

The prophecy regarding the carrying away of captives from Ethiopia and Egypt was fulfilled in the tremendous overthrow of the coalition by Ashurbanipal in 663 when No-amon (the same as Thebes) was brutally destroyed and large numbers of captives deported. The prophecy of Nahum has a remarkably graphic account of this crucial victory of Assyria against Egypt and Ethiopia.

Note the words, “buttocks uncovered” in Isaiah 20:4. Jamieson declares that, “Captives are found depicted thus on Egyptian monuments.”(F11)

Of all the ancient powers, the Assyrians were the most sadistically cruel. They were generally called “The Breakers”; and their horrible treatment of prisoners taken in war is fairly represented by Isaiah’s prophecy. The Babylonians do not seem to have been as cruel; therefore, although it was in God’s plan for Judah also to go into captivity, it was a great mercy that God’s providence sent them to Babylon and not to Nineveh. The failure of any of the Northern Israel to return from captivity was probably due directly to the fatal treatment of prisoners.

Verse 5

“And they shall be dismayed and confounded, because of Ethiopia their expectation, and of Egypt their glory.”

Even in Nahum’s account of the fall of Egypt in the siege of No-amon, the alliance with Ethiopia was mentioned as one of the bulwarks upon which the doomed nation relied in vain for victory (Nahum 3:9).

One of the significant things not previously noted in this chapter is God’s reference to Isaiah as “my servant” in Isaiah 20:3. “Isaiah shares this honorable title with a select few of God’s saints: (1) Abraham (Genesis 26:24); (2) Moses (Numbers 12:7); (3) Caleb (Numbers 14:24); (4) Job (Job 1:8; Job 42:7-8; (5) Eliakim (Isaiah 22:20); and (6) Zerrubbabel (Haggai 2:23).”(F12) What an honor it is for any mortal to be recognized as one who is actually serving God!

Verse 6

“And the inhabitant of this coast-land shall say in that day, Behold, such is our expectation, whither we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria: and we, how shall we escape.”

Here is the Lord’s prophecy through Isaiah of what the people of Judah shall say when they see what is going to happen to Ashdod. To paraphrase: Now, just look at what has happened to the powers we thought might be able to help us; where shall we turn for help? Judah’s only hope was the Lord; and thanks to Isaiah’s prophecies, they, at last, trusted God and were delivered from the cruel Assyrians in 701 B.C. when God put the hook in the nose of Sennacherib and dragged him back to Nineveh.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 20". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/isaiah-20.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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