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(1) The burden of Egypt.—In its political bearings, as Egypt and Ethiopia were at this time under the same ruler, Tirhakah, as they had been before under Piankhi-Mer-Amon, this prophecy presents nearly the same features as the preceding. Its chief characteristic is that it presents the condition of the conquered nation as distinct from that of the conqueror. The opening words declare that the long-delayed judgment is at last coming, swift as a cloud driven by the storm-wind, upon the idols of Egypt. Men shall feel that the presence of the Mighty One is among them.
(2) I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians . . .—The discord predicted was probably the natural consequence of the overthrow of the Ethiopian power by Sargon, the Assyrian king, in B.C. 720. Under Piankhi each nome, or district, had been governed by a chief, owning the suzerainty of the Ethiopian king, and these, when the restraint was removed, would naturally assert their independence. So Herodotus (ii. 147) relates that on the overthrow of Sabaco, the last of the Ethiopian dynasty, the unity of Egypt was broken up into a dodecarchy.
(3) The charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits . . .—The old reputation of Egypt for magic arts (Exodus 7:22; Exodus 8:7) seems to have continued. The “charmers” or mutterers were probably distinguished, like “those that peep” in Isaiah 8:19, by some peculiar form of ventriloquism. A time of panic, when the counsels of ordinary statesmen failed, was sure there, as at Athens in its times of peril, to be fruitful in oracles and divinations.
(4) Into the hand of a cruel lord.—The later history of Egypt presents so many pictures of oppressive government, that it is hard to say to which of them the picture thus drawn bears most resemblance. Sargon, or Esarhaddon, or Psammetichus, who became king of Egypt on the breaking up of the dodecarchy, or Nebuchadnezzar, or Cambyses, has, each in his turn, been identified as presenting the features of the “cruel lord.”
(5) The waters shall fail from the sea.—The “sea,” like the river, is, of course, the Nile (Homer calls it Oceanus), or, possibly, indicates specially the Pelusiac branch of the river. So the White and Blue Niles are respectively the White and Blue Seas (Bahr). The words that follow seem to describe partly the result of the failure of the annual rising of the Nile, partly of the neglect of the appliances of irrigation caused by the anarchy implied in Isaiah 19:2 (Herod. ii. 137).
(6) And they shall turn the rivers far away.—Better, the river shall stagnate; i.e., in consequence of the Nile’s inundation failing.
The brooks of defence.—The latter noun (Heb., matzor) is better treated as a proper name, the singular of the dual form Mitsraim, commonly used for Egypt. Here it would seem to be used for Lower Egypt, the region of Zoan and Memphis, as distinct from Upper Egypt or the Thebaid. The same form occurs in Isaiah 37:25; 2 Kings 19:24; Micah 7:12. Its primary meaning is that of a fortified land. The “flags” are strictly the papyrus of the Nile; the “brooks” are the canals or Nile-branches of the Delta.
(7) The paper reeds by the brooks.—Better, the meadows by the Nile. And so in the other clauses, the Hebrew word for “brooks” being used specifically for that river. For “shall wither and be driven away,” read, shall dry up and vanish. The valley of the Nile is to become as parched and barren as the desert on either side of it.
(8) The fishers also shall mourn.—With the failure of the river, one at least of the industries of Egypt failed also. Fish had at all times formed part of the diet of the working-classes of Egypt (Herod. ii. 93; Numbers 11:5), and the pictures of Egyptian life continually represent the two modes of fishing, with the “angle” or hook, and with the net.
(9) Moreover they that work in fine flax.—Another class also would find its occupation gone. The “fine flax” was used especially for the dress of the priests (Herod. ii. 81), and for the mummy clothes of the dead (1 Kings 10:28; Ezekiel 27:7).
They that weave networks.—Better, white cloths, the cotton or byssus fabrics for which Egypt was famous.
(10) And they shall be broken in the purposes thereof.—Better, the pillars thereof (i.e., the props and columns of the state) shall be broken in pieces, and all those who work for wages (i.e., the great masses of the people) shall be troubled in mind. The word translated “purposes,” occurs in the sense here given in Psalms 11:3, and is there translated “foundations.” (Compare the like figure in Ezekiel 30:4; Galatians 2:9.)
(11) Surely the princes of Zoan are fools.—Zoan, the great city of the Delta, was known to the Greeks as Tanis, founded, as stated in Numbers 13:22, seven years after Hebron. Here the great Rameses II. fixed his capital, and the city thus acquired the name of Pi-Rameses.
How say ye unto Pharaoh . . .?—The princes of Zoan, probably priest-princes and priest-magicians (Exodus 7:11), boasting at once of their wisdom and their ancestry, are represented as speaking to the Pharaoh of the time (probably, as in Isaiah 18:0, of Ethiopian origin) in something like a tone of superiority. They claim to be the only counsellors; and the prophet challenges their claim. Can they disclose, as he can, the future that impends over their country?
(13) The princes of Noph.—Probably, as in the LXX., Noph is the same as Memphis. The name has been derived (1) from Ma-m-pthah (“the house of Pthah,” an Egyptian deity of the Hephæstos, or Yulcan type); or (2), and more correctly, from Men-nepher (“place of the good”). This also was, as in Hosea 9:6 (where we have the form Moph), one of the chief royal cities of Lower Egypt, and the seat of the Ethiopian dynasty then ruling.
Even they that are the stay of the tribes thereof.—Better, the corner-stone of the castes. The word is the same as the “corner” of Zechariah 10:4, the “chief” of Judges 20:2; 1 Samuel 14:38, and describes the position of superiority among the Egyptian castes claimed by the priest-rulers of Zoan and Noph.
(14) The Lord hath mingled a perverse spirit.—Better, hath poured a spirit of giddiness. As in 1 Kings 22:22; 1 Samuel 16:14, the infatuation of the Egyptian rulers is thought of as a judicial blindness. Prostrate or vacillating amid the wrecks of frustrated hopes and plans, they are as the drunkard staggering in his foulness. (Comp. Isaiah 29:9.)
(15) The head or tail, branch or rush.—For this figurative description of all classes of the people, see Note on Isaiah 9:14.
(16) In that day shall Egypt be like unto “women.—This image of panic, terror, and weakness has been natural in the poetry of all countries (comp. Homer, “Achæan women, not Achæan men”), and appears in its strongest form in Jeremiah 48:41. In such a state, even the land of Judah, once so despised, shall become a source of terror.
(18) In that day shall five cities in the land of Egypt speak the language of Canaan.—The prophecy is, it will be noticed, parallel to that affecting Ethiopia in Isaiah 18:7, and at least expresses the yearnings of the prophet’s heart after the conversion of Egypt to the worship of Jehovah. Like the previous prediction, it connects itself with Psalms 87:0, as recording the admission of proselytes as from other countries, so also from Rahab (i.e., Egypt). The “five cities” stand either as a certain number for an uncertain (Isaiah 30:17; Isaiah 17:6; Leviticus 26:8; 1 Corinthians 14:19), or possibly as the actual number of the chief or royal cities of Egypt. The “language of Canaan” is Hebrew, and the prediction is that this will become the speech of the worshippers of Jehovah in the Egyptian cities. There is to be one universal speech for the universal Church of the true Israel.
And swear to the Lord of hosts.—The oath, as in the parallel phrase of Isaiah 45:23, is one of allegiance, and implies, therefore, something like a covenant of obedience.
The city of destruction.—There is probably something like a play on the name of the Egyptian city On, the Greek Heliopolis, the City of the Sun (Heb., Ir-ha-kheres), and the word which the prophet actually uses (Ir-ha-cheres), the “city of destruction.” The paronomasia, like in character to Ezekiel’s transformation of On into Aven, “nothingness,” or “vanity” (Ezekiel 30:17), or Hosea’s of Beth-el (“house of God”) into Bethaven (“ house of nothingness”) (Hosea 4:15), was intended to indicate the future demolition of the sun-idols, and is so interpreted in the Targum on this passage, “Bethshemesh (i.e., Heliopolis), whose future fate shall be destruction.” The word for destruction is cognate with the verb used of Gideon’s breaking down the image of Baal, in Judges 6:25; and in Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jeremiah 43:13), “He shall break the pillars in the house of the sun,” we may probably trace an allusive reference to Isaiah’s language. Other meanings, such as “city of rescue,” “city of protection,” “city of restoration,” have been suggested, but on inadequate grounds. The Vulg. gives civitas solis. The LXX. rendering, “city asedek,” apparently following a different reading of the Hebrew, and giving the meaning, “city of righteousness,” was probably connected historically with the erection of a Jewish temple at Leon-topolis by Onias IV., in the time of Ptolemy Philomêtor, which for some two centuries shared with the Temple at Jerusalem the homage of Egyptian Jews. Onias and his followers pointed to Isaiah’s words as giving a sanction to what their brethren in Palestine looked on as a rival and sacrilegious worship.
(19) In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord . . .—The words naturally tended to bring about their own fulfilment, as related in the preceding note. From the prophet’s own stand-point, however, the altar was probably thought of, not as the centre of a rival worship, but, like that erected by the trans-Jordanic tribes in the time of Joshua, as an altar of “witness” (Joshua 22:27), and the words that follow supply a distinct confirmation of this view. Substantially the prophet saw in the distant future a time in which the connection between Judah and Egypt should be one influencing the latter for good, and not the former for evil. The admission of Egyptian and Ethiopian proselytes, already referred to, was as the first fruits of such an influence. It may not be without interest to note some of its later workings. (1) In the time of Manasseh, who gave to his son Amon a name singularly Egyptian in its sound, a body of Jewish settlers were invited by Psammetichus to station themselves on the frontiers of Upper Egypt (“Pseudo-Aristeas,” in Hudson’s Josephus). (2) Under Ptolemy I. large numbers of Jewish emigrants fixed themselves at Alexandria, with full toleration of their faith and worship. (3) Under Ptolemy Philadelphus the intercourse between the Palestinians and Egyptians led to the translation of the Old Testament Scriptures known as the LXX., and this was followed by the growth of a Hellenistic or a Græco-Jewish literature, of which we have the remains in the Apocrypha and in Philo. (4) There was the erection of the Leontopolis Temple, already spoken of, and this was followed by that of numerous synagogues, perhaps also of monasteries for communities of Jewish ascetics of the Essene type, such as that which Philo describes under the name of the Thera-pœutœ (Euseb. H.E. ii. 17).
A pillar at the border thereof . . .—The pillar was the familiar obelisk of the Egyptians, commonly associated with the worship of the sun. The point of Isaiah’s prediction was that the symbol should be rescued from its idolatrous uses, and stand on the border-land of Egypt and of Judah, as a witness that Jehovah, the Lord of hosts, was worshipped in both countries.
(20) For they shall cry unto the Lord because of the oppressors . . .—The words are almost as an anticipation of the great truth proclaimed in John 4:21. The prayers of the worshippers in spirit and in truth, whether Jews or proselytes, in Egypt should find as immediate an access to the ear of Jehovah as if they had been offered in the Temple at Jerusalem. If the people suffered under the oppression of a Pharaoh, or a Cambyses, or a Ptolemy, and prayed for deliverance, He would as certainly send them a saviour who should free them from the yoke as He had sent saviours to Israel of old in the persons of the judges (Judges 3:9; Judges 3:15; Judges 4:4). It is open to us to see a yet higher fulfilment in the fact that the message of the Gospel brought peace and joy to those who were weary and heavy laden in Egypt, as well as in Galilee; to those who were looking for redemption in Alexandria not less than to those who were looking for it in Jerusalem.
(21) The Egyptians shall know the Lord . . .—Here also we note what we may venture to call the catholicity of Isaiah’s mind. The highest of all blessings, the knowledge of God as He is (John 17:3), was not to be the exclusive inheritance of Israel, but was to be shared even by the nation whom she had reason to regard as her hereditary enemy.
Sacrifice and oblation.—The two words describe respectively the slain victims and the meat, or rather, meal, offerings of the Law. Did the prophet, we ask, think of such sacrifices as literally offered in Egypt, or did he look beyond the symbol to the thing symbolised? The builders of the temple at Leontopolis took the former view. Those who have entered into the mind and spirit of Isaiah will be inclined, perhaps, to take the latter. A literal fulfilment has been found in the fact that Ptolemy Euergetes (B.C. 244) came to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the Temple.
(22) And the Lord shall smite Egypt . . .—The tone of the preceding verses seems at first at variance with the stern prophecies of disaster with which the chapter opened. The prophet, however, is no eater of his words. What he has learnt is to look beyond the chastisement, and to see that it is as true of Egypt as of Israel, that “whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.” The sword of Jehovah smote but to heal, and the healing could not come without the smiting. Through it they would be led to pray, and prayer was the condition of all spiritual recovery.
(23) In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria.—The prophet’s horizon at once brightens and expands. Palestine was in his time the battle-field of the two great empires. The armies of one of the great powers crossed it both before and after, as in the case of Shishak, Zerah, Tirhakah, Necho, Sargon, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, on their march against the other. The prophet looks forward to a time when the long-standing discord should cease (Assyria, or the power which succeeded her, gaining for a time the suzerainty), and both should be joined with Israel, as in “a three-fold cord, not easily broken.” Like other bright ideals of the future, it yet waits for its complete fulfilment. The nearest historical approximation to it is, perhaps, found in the Persian monarchy, including, as it did, the territory of Assyria, of Israel, and of Egypt, and acknowledging, through the proclamations of Cyrus, Jehovah as the God of heaven (Ezra 1:2). May we connect this prediction with Isaiah’s distinctly defined anticipation of the part which Persia was to play in the drama of the world’s history as an iconoclastic and monotheistic power, and so with the dominant idea of Isaiah 40-66?
(25) Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless . . .—In this tripartite holy alliance Israel is to retain the spiritual supremacy. Egypt, once alien, becomes the people of the Lord. (Comp. Hosea 1:9-10.) Assyria is recognised as the instrument which He has made to do His work (comp. Isaiah 10:15; Isaiah 37:26); but Israel has the proud pre-eminence of being His “inheritance.”
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 19". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany