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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 20

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes


This prophecy occupies this single chapter. Its design and scope it is not difficult to understand. The time when it was delivered is designated in Isaiah 20:1, and was manifestly in the reign of Hezekiah. The Assyrian empire had extended its conquests over Syria, Damascus, and Ephraim or Samaria 2 Kings 18:9-12. The king of Assyria lied sent Tartan to take possession of Ashdod, or Azotus, the maritime key of Palestine, and there was evident danger that the Assyrians would overthrow the government of Judah, and secure also the conquest of Egypt. In these circumstances of danger, the main reliance of Judah was on the aid which they hoped to derive from Egypt and Ethiopia Isaiah 20:5, as being alone able to repel the Assyrians. They relied rather on that aid than on God. To “recall” them from this, and to show them the vanity of such a dependence, and to lead them to rely on God, Isaiah was sent to them to be a sign; or to indicate by a symbolic action what would be the fate of the Egyptians on whom they were placing their reliance Isaiah 20:4. By showing the Jews what would be the destiny of Egypt, he designed to withdraw them from resting on their assistance, and to turn them to God for protection and aid.

Verse 1

In the year that Tartan came unto Ashdod - Tartan was one of the generals of Sennacherib. Ashdod, called by the Greeks Azotus, was a seaport on the Mediterranean, between Askelon and Ekron, and not far from Gaza (Reland’s “Palestine,” iii.) It was one of the five cities of the Philistines, assigned to the tribe of Judah, but never conquered by them Joshua 13:8; Joshua 15:46-47. The temple of Dagon stood here; and here the ark of God was brought after the fatal battle of Eben-ezer (1 Samuel 5:1, following.) It sustained many sieges, and was regarded as an important place in respect to Palestine, and also to Egypt. It was taken by Tartan, and remained in the possession of the Assyrians until it was besieged by Psammetichus, the Egyptian king, who took it after a siege of twenty-nine years (Herod. ii. 157). It was about thirty miles from Gaza. It is now a small village, and is called “Esdud.” It was besieged and taken by Tartan as preparatory to the conquest of Egypt; and if the king who is here called “Sargon” was Sennacherib, it probable that it was taken before he threatened Jerusalem.

Sargon the king of Assyria - Who this “Sargon” was is not certainly known. Some have supposed that it was Sennacherib; others that it was Shalmaneser the father of Sennacherib, and others that it was Esar-haddon the successor of Sennacherib - (Michaelis). Rosenmuller and Gesenius suppose that it was a king who reigned “between” Sbalmaneser and Sennacherib. Tartan is known to have been a general of Sennacherib 2 Kings 18:17, and it is natural to suppose that he is here intended. Jerome says that Senacherib had seven names, and Kimchi says that he had eight; and it is not improbable that “Sargon” was one of those names. Oriental princes often had several names; and hence, the difficulty of identifying them. See Vitringa on this place.

Verse 2

By Isaiah - Margin, ‘By the hand of Isaiah.’ So the Hebrew. That is, by the instrumentality of Isaiah. He sent him to make known the fate of the Egyptians, and the folly of trusting in them on this occasion.

Go, and loose the sackcloth - For the meaning of the word “sackcloth,” see the note at Isaiah 3:24. It was commonly worn as an emblem of mourning. But there is reason to believe that it was worn also by the prophets, and was regarded, in some degree, as their appropriate dress. It was made usually of the coarse hair of the goat, and was worn as a zone or girdle around the loins. That this was the dress of Elijah is apparent from 2 Kings 1:8 : ‘He was an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather;’ that is, he was clothed in a garment made of hair. The same was true of John the Baptist Matthew 3:4. That the prophets wore ‘a rough garment’ is apparent also from Zechariah 13:4 : ‘Neither shall they (the false prophets) wear a rough garment (Hebrew, A garment of hair) to deceive;’ that is, the false prophets shall not assume the dress of the true prophets for the purpose of deluding the people, or to make them think that they are true prophets. It is evident, therefore, that this hairy garment was regarded as a dress that pertained particularly to the prophets. It is well known, also, that the ancient Greek philosophers had a special dress to distinguish them from the common people. Probably the custom of wearing “hair cloth” among the monks of later ages took its rise from this example of the prophets. His removing this garment was designed to be a sign or an emblem to show that the Egyptians should be stripped of all their possessions, and carried captive to Assyria.

Walking naked - That is, walking “without this special prophetic garment. It does not mean that he was in a state of entire nudity, for all that he was directed to do was to lay this garment - this emblem of his office - aside. The word “naked,” moreover, is used in the Scriptures, not to denote an absolute destitution of clothing, but that the “outer” garment was laid aside (see the note at John 21:7). Thus it is said of Saul 1 Samuel 19:24 that he ‘stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel, and lay down naked all that day;’ that is, he stripped off his royal robes, and was “naked or unclothed” in that respect. He removed his “special” dress as a king, or military chieftain, and appeared in the ordinary dress. It cannot be supposed that the king of Israel would be seen literally without raiment. So David is said to have danced “naked” before the ark, that is, with his royal robes laid aside. How “long” Isaiah walked in this manner has been a matter of doubt (see the note at Isaiah 20:3). The prophets were accustomed to use symbolic actions to denote the events which they foretold (see the note at Isaiah 8:18). Thus the children of Isaiah, and the names given to them, were significant of important events (Isaiah 8:1-3; compare Jeremiah 18:1-6; Jeremiah 43:8-9); in both of which places he used emblematic actions to exhibit the events concerning which he prophesied in a striking manner. Thus also the prophets are expressly called ‘signs and wonders’ Zechariah 3:8; Ezekiel 12:6.

Verse 3

Like as - That is, as Isaiah has gone stripped of his special garment as a prophet, so shall the Egyptians and Ethiopians be stripped of all that they value, and be carried captive into Assyria.’

Hath walked ... three years - A great deal of difficulty has been felt in the interpretation of this place, from the strong improbability that Isaiah should have gone in this manner for a space of time so long as our translation expresses. The Septuagint renders this, ‘As my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot three years, three years shall be for signs and wonders to the Egyptians and Ethiopians.’ The phrase in the Hebrew, ‘three years,’ “may” either be taken in connection with the preceding part of the sentence, as in our translation, meaning that he actually walked so long; or it may be taken with that which follows, and then it will denote that he was a sign and wonder with reference to the captivity of the Egyptians and Ethiopians; and that by this symbolic action he in some way indicated that they would be carried away captive for that space of time; or, as Aben Ezra and Abarbanel suppose, that he signified that their captivity would commence after three years. Lowth supposes that it means that his walking was for three days, and that the Hebrew text bas been corrupted. Vitringa also seems to suppose that this is possible, and that a day was a symbolic sign for a year. Rosenmuller supposes that this prophetic action was continued during three years “at intervals,” so that the subject might be kept before the mind of the people. But the supposition that this means that the symbolic action of walking naked and barefoot continued for so long a time in any manner, is highly improbable.

(1) The Hebrew does not necessarily require it. It “may” mean simply that his actions were a sign and wonder with reference to a three years’ captivity of the Egyptians.

(2) It is in itself improbable that he should so long a time walk about Jerusalem expressly as a sign and wonder, when a much shorter period would have answered the purpose as well.

(3) Such a sign would have hardly met the circumstances of the case. Asdod was taken. The Assyrian king was advancing.

The Jews were in consternation and looking to Egypt for help; and amidst this agitation and alarm, there is the highest improbability that Isaiah would be required to remain a sign and wonder for the long space of three years, when decided action was needed, and when, unless prevented, the Jews would have formed a speedy alliance with the Egyptians. I suppose, therefore, that the entire sense of the phrase will be expressed by translating it, ‘my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot, “a three years’ sign and wonder;’” that is, a sign and indication that “a three years’ calamity” would come upon Egypt and Ethiopia. Whether this means that the calamity would “commence” in three years from that time, or that it should “continue” three years, perhaps we cannot determine. Grotius thinks that it means that it would occur “after” three years; that is, that the war between the Assyrians and Ethiopians would continue during that time only. In what manner Isaiah indicated this, is not certainly known. The conjecture of Lowth is not improbable, that it was by appearing three “days” naked and barefoot, and that each day denoted a year. Or it may have been that he appeared in this manner for a short period - though but once - and “declared” that this was the design or purport of the action.

Upon Egypt ... - With reference to; or as a sign in regard to Egypt. It does not mean that he was in Egypt, but that his action “had reference” to Egypt.

And Ethiopia - Hebrew, כושׁ kûsh - (see the note at Isaiah 11:11). Whether this denotes the African Cush or Ethiopia, or whether it refers to the “Cush” in Arabia, cannot be determined. The latter is the more probable supposition, as it is scarcely probable that the Assyrian would extend his conquests south of Egypt so as to subdue the African Ethiopia. Probably his conquest embraced the “Cush” that was situated in the southern regions of Arabia.

Verse 4

So shall the king of Assyria - The emphasis here is on the word “so.” As Isaiah has walked naked, that is, stripped off his usual clothing, “so” shall the Egyptians and Ethiopians be led away “stripped” of all their possessions.

The Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives - The Egyptians and Ethiopians, or Cushites, were often united in an alliance, and appear to have been when this prophecy was delivered. Thus Nahum 3:8 :

Ethiopia and Egypt were her strength, and it was infinite;

Put and Lubim were thy helpers.

To the shame of Egypt - It shall be a disgrace to them to be subdued, and to be carried captive in so humiliating a manner. It is remarked by Belzoni (‘Operations and Recent Discoveries in Egypt and Nubia’), that in the figures on the remains of their temples, prisoners are often represented as naked, or only in aprons, with disheveled hair, and with their hands chained. He also remarks, that on a “bas-relief,” on the recently-discovered graves of the kings of Thebes, a multitude of “Egyptian and Ethiopian prisoners” are represented - showing that Egypt and Ethiopia were sometimes “allied,” alike in mutual defense and in bondage (compare Isaiah 47:2, and Nahum 3:5).

Verse 5

And they shall be afraid - The Jews, or the party or faction among the Jews, that were expecting aid from allied Ethiopia and Egypt. When they shall see them vanquished, they shall apprehend a similar danger to themselves; and they shall be ashamed that they ever confided in a people so little able to aid them, instead of trusting in the arm of God.

Egypt their glory - Their boast, as if Egypt was able to save them. The word rendered here ‘glory’ (תפארת tiph'ereth) means properly, “ornament, praise, honor;” and then it may mean the “object” of glory, or that in which people boast or confide. That is its sense here (compare Isaiah 10:12; Isaiah 13:19; Zechariah 12:7).

Verse 6

And the inhabitant - The dwellers generally.

Of this isle - The word אי 'iy “isle” is used here in the sense of “coast, or maritime” country, and is evidently applied to Palestine, or the land of Canaan, which is a narrow coast lying on the Mediterranean. That the word is often used in this sense, and may be applied to a maritime country, see the notes at Isaiah 13:22; Isaiah 41:1. The connection here requires us to understand it of Palestine.

Shall say ... - Shall condemn their own folly in trusting in Egypt, and seeking deliverance there.

And how shall we escape? - They shall be alarmed for their own safety, for the very nation on which they had relied had been made captive. And when the “stronger” had been subdued, how could the feeble and dependent escape a similar overthrow and captivity? All this was designed to show them the folly of trusting in the aid of another nation, and to lead them to put confidence in the God of their fathers.

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Isaiah 20". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnb/isaiah-20.html. 1870.
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