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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 19

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


The oracle against Egypt chs. 19-20

This oracle clarifies that God’s purposes for Egypt, another nation the Judeans wanted to trust for help during this time of Assyrian expansion, would involve judgment followed by blessing. The passage consists of three palistrophic (chiastic) parts.

A Egypt’s smiting by God predicted Isaiah 19:1-15

B Egypt’s healing by God Isaiah 19:16-25

C Egypt’s smiting by God exemplified ch. 20

When Assyria swallowed up Syria in 732 B.C. and then Israel in 722 B.C., many of the Judeans began looking south to Egypt for help against their Mesopotamian foe (cf. chs. 30-31). Isaiah warned his countrymen against relying on Egypt, as he had warned them against putting confidence in other foreign powers. Whatever people trust in place of God eventually disappoints them.

The prediction of Egypt’s smiting (Isaiah 19:1-15) begins and ends with references to the Lord’s action (Isaiah 19:1; Isaiah 19:14-15). In between, the prophet announced Egypt’s social (Isaiah 19:2-4), economic (Isaiah 19:5-10), and political (Isaiah 19:11-13) collapse. The whole point is that God ultimately controls the fate of nations-not social, economic, and political conditions.

Verse 1

Sovereign Yahweh was about to visit Egypt, and when He did, her idols would prove impotent and her people fearful. He had done this at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 12:12), but Egypt was to receive a repeat lesson.

Verses 2-4

Egyptian society was notable for its lack of unity throughout its history. There was frequent conflict between the Upper and Lower Egypt geographical factions. Kingdom periods, during which the Pharaoh was worshipped as god, were interspersed with long periods when the 42 city-states ruled themselves and the people worshipped innumerable gods. Sometimes her god-king was strong and the people united behind him, but when he was weak there was little social solidarity. Isaiah foresaw another period of social chaos coming when the Egyptians would look to idols and the spirit world for guidance. The sovereign God of armies would then deliver them over to the rule of a strong, cruel leader who would dominate them. The fulfillment may have been the Ethiopian Pharaoh Piankhi (715 B.C.), Pharaoh Psammetichus (670 B.C.), one of the Assyrian kings (Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon in 671, or Ashurbanipal in 668 B.C.), or the Persian Artaxerxes III Ochus (343 B.C.). Several conservative scholars prefer Esarhaddon. [Note: See also Chisholm, Handbook on . . ., p. 60.] Depressed people are easy targets for despotic rulers.

Verses 5-10

Egypt’s economy depended almost entirely on the Nile River. But the Nile would dry up, thanks to the sovereign control of Yahweh (cf. Exodus 7:14-25). The "sea" (Heb. yam) in view probably refers to the Nile River, a name the Egyptians used to describe it. [Note: Delitzsch, 1:357.] Then the economy would suffer and the people would become weak. How foolish, then, to trust in a nation that cannot control its own destiny but which Yahweh controls. The waters from the sea (Isaiah 19:5) probably refer to the waters of the Nile, which looked like a sea at flood stage in Lower (northern) Egypt. Flax (Isaiah 19:9) and all plants need water, but when there is drought the captains of industry, or the industries themselves ("pillars of Egypt"), that rely on these plants suffer, and their workers have no jobs.

"When a nation’s spirit evaporates and sectional interests predominate, when no plan seems to prosper, then the means to make industry thrive may well be there (and the Nile flow as before) but the will to exploit the asset is gone." [Note: Motyer, p. 165.]

Verses 11-13

The Egyptians were known for their wisdom and took great pride in it (cf. Matthew 13:54; Mark 6:2). Isaiah challenged their wise men to inform the people what Yahweh of armies had in store for them (cf. Joseph). He could frustrate their plans, but they could not discover His. Their unwise politicians had misled the people by failing to diversify the economy, among other ways. Too much of their hope lay in the Nile, which the people worshipped as a god. Zoan (Isaiah 19:11, Gr. Tanis) was a chief city and often the capital of Lower Egypt, and Noph (Gr. Memphis, Isaiah 19:13) was another chief city and former capital of the same part of Egypt.

Verses 14-15

Though the wise men of Egypt could not reveal God’s actions (cf. Isaiah 19:1), the prophet of God could and did. The Lord had confounded the wisdom of the Egyptian leaders because they had resorted to idols and spirits rather than seeking Him (Isaiah 19:3; cf. Genesis 11:1-9; Romans 1:18-32). Consequently their national behavior resembled that of a drunken man, not knowing where to turn and befouling himself in the messes that he made. Such a person cannot accomplish anything productive, and neither would Egypt. How foolish Judah would be to trust in such a disabled drunk of a nation!

"To join with Egypt would be to associate with a nation under divine wrath (1), trust the promises of a divided people (2), look for help to a collapsing economy (5-10), expect wisdom where there was only folly (11-13) and believe that those who were unable to solve their own problems (15) could solve the problems of others!" [Note: Ibid., p. 166.]

The following section (Isaiah 19:16-25) gives the Lord’s solution, point by point, to the problems of Egypt and, for that matter, of all powers and people that leave God out. The repetition of "in that day" (Isaiah 19:16; Isaiah 19:18-19; Isaiah 19:23-24) highlights a time yet future when God will reverse Egypt’s fortunes. Isaiah used this phrase 42 times, comprising half of all its occurrences in the prophets and a quarter of those in the Old Testament. The same "Yahweh Almighty" who would bring the former smiting (Isaiah 19:4; Isaiah 19:12) would also bring healing (Isaiah 19:18; Isaiah 19:20; Isaiah 19:25). Why turn to Egypt for help when one day Egypt will turn to Yahweh?

Verses 16-17

In a future day, Yahweh of armies would exalt Judah over Egypt so that the Egyptians would fear Israel and the Lord. This had happened at the Exodus (Exodus 10:7; Exodus 12:33; Deuteronomy 2:25), and it would happen again by the manifestation of God’s power. This has not yet happened, so the fulfillment must be eschatological.

Verse 18

In that day, the populations of five Egyptian cities would speak Hebrew out of deference to the Jews and commitment to Yahweh. While five is not many, Isaiah evidently meant that as many as five (quite a few in view of Egypt’s previous massive idolatry), and perhaps more, would do so (cf. Genesis 11:1). One of these five would be called the City of Destruction (Heb. heres), perhaps because of the destruction that God would bring to Egypt. Another possibility is that "destruction" should read "sun" (Heb. heres with a het rather than a he). In this case the City of the Sun, On (Gr. Heliopolis), is in view. On was a center of the worship of the sun god in Egypt, so this may point to an end of idolatry there.

Verses 19-22

Abraham built an altar to express his gratitude and commitment to the Lord (Genesis 12:8; cf. Joshua 22:34; Joshua 24:26-27), and Jacob erected a pillar when he memorialized God’s covenant to him (Genesis 28:22). The Egyptians will do these things throughout their land to express those things in that day (Isaiah 19:19). Israelites during the Judges Period cried out to God because of their oppressors, and He sent them deliverers (Judges 3:9; Judges 3:15; Judges 6:7; Judges 10:10). Their great oppressor in the past, of course, had been Egypt herself. Similarly, when the Egyptians call out to God for help, He will send them a Savior and a Champion, Messiah (Isaiah 19:20). The Lord revealed Himself to the Israelites and brought them into a saving relationship with Himself through bitter defeat in the Exodus (Exodus 7:5; Exodus 9:29; Exodus 14:4). He will do the same to the Egyptians in that future day (Isaiah 19:21; cf. Jeremiah 31:34; Zechariah 14:16-18), and they will respond with appropriate worship. Parents sometimes strike their children to bring them into line, and God will discipline Egypt to bring her to Himself. He will hurt them, but He will hurt them to heal them, like a surgeon (Isaiah 19:22). This whole section is a picture of reconciliation still future.

"This is the point: the worship of Yahweh in Egypt will be open and official. . . . Historical fulfillment here, like historical fulfillment in each of the five ’in that day’ passages, did not occur." [Note: Watts, p. 258.]

Verse 23

Human reconciliation between the major powers of the world will also characterize that day. Note the spread of peace from a few cities (Isaiah 19:18), to a whole country (Isaiah 19:19), and now to the whole world (Isaiah 19:23). In Isaiah’s day, Israel found herself caught between Egypt and Assyria, but in the future both of these enemies would join in worshipping Israel’s God. A highway between these superpowers existed in the prophet’s day, but marching armies often used it.

Verses 24-25

Finally, equality between Israel and its former enemies would prevail in that great day. Through Israel all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3), but blessed equally with Israel. God applied some of His favorite terms for Israel to Egypt and Assyria: "My people" (cf. Isaiah 10:24; Isaiah 43:6-7; Exodus 5:1; Jeremiah 11:4; Hosea 1:10; Hosea 2:23), and "the work of My hands" (cf. Isaiah 60:12; Isaiah 64:8; Psalms 119:73; Psalms 138:8). He reserved "My inheritance" for Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 32:9). [Note: For further study of these verses, see Duane L. Christensen, "A New Israel: The Righteous from among All Nations," in Israel’s Apostasy and Restoration: Essays in Honor of Roland K. Harrison, pp. 251-59.]

"Yahweh’s divine imperium is seen to draw within its scope and purpose the entire known world." [Note: Watts, P. 261.]

Premillennialists believe the fulfillment of this prophecy awaits the Millennium. Amillennialists see its fulfillment in the present age, as Gentiles along with Jews become one in Christ. [Note: E.g., Young, 2:46-47.]

"The point being made is that if Israel turns to the nations in trust she will be prostituting her ministry to them. Instead, she is to be the vehicle whereby those very nations can turn to her God and become partners with her in service to him and enjoying his blessings." [Note: Oswalt, p. 381.]

In view of passages such as this, it is amazing that the Jews of Jesus’ day (and earlier and later) resisted so strongly the idea that God wanted the Gentiles to enjoy blessing along with them.

The following incident illustrates that the world powers of Isaiah’s day were indeed subject to Yahweh, just as the prophet had proclaimed (Isaiah 19:23-25). It is another sign, the third so far in Isaiah, that God could and would do in the distant future what Isaiah had predicted. It also involved a symbolic act.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 19". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/isaiah-19.html. 2012.
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