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Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 29

Fairbairn's Commentary on Ezekiel, Jonah and Pastoral EpistlesFairbairn's Commentaries

Verses 1-21

CHAPTER 29.

THE JUDGMENT OF EGYPT ITS DESOLATION FOR FORTY YEARS, AND SUBSEQUENT DEGRADATION THE FIRST INSTRUMENT OF CHASTISEMENT, NEBUCHADNEZZAR.

WE come now to the last of the wordly kingdoms against which in this series the prophet was commissioned to utter the judgments of the Lord. It is also the one that occupies the largest space in the visions of the prophet, as might not unnaturally have been expected from the relative importance of Egypt, and the position it had so long occupied in the world’s history. Though standing as to local situation at a much greater distance from the children of Israel than Tyre, it yet held as a kingdom a much closer connection with them, and sought to obtain the same ascendancy in the dominion of the world that Tyre did in its commerce. It was with this view, and not from any desire to benefit the little kingdom of Judah, that the king of Egypt began, about the time now under consideration, to cultivate a friendly understanding with Zedekiah, and by sending an army to his relief, obliged the Chaldeans for a time to raise the siege against Jerusalem (Jeremiah 37:7-11). The real object of the king of Egypt was to create a diversion against the Babylonian monarch, and, if possible, arrest the victorious career of that dangerous rival. The monarch who then sat upon the throne of Egypt was Apries, the commencement of whose reign was prosperous, and he was considered “the most fortunate monarch who had hitherto ruled in Egypt, next to his grandfather Psammitichus. He sent an expedition against the island of Cyprus, besieged and took Gaza (Jeremiah 47:1) and the city of Sidon, engaged and vanquished the king of Tyre by sea, and, being uniformly successful, he made himself master of Phoenicia and Palestine, recovering much of the territory and that influence in Syria which had been taken from Egypt by the victories of Nebuchadnezzar,” (Wilkinson’s Ancient Egyptians, vol. i. p. 169.) especially the great victory at Carchemish, in the fourth year of the reign of Jehoiakirn (Jeremiah 46:2; 2 Kings 24:7). So proud was this king of his successes, and so secure did he think himself of his power and dominion, that he is reported to have said, not even a god could deprive him of his kingdom. (Herodotus, ii. 169.)

It was while such a king held the sceptre of Egypt, and while he still was in the noontide of his prosperity, that Ezekiel began to utter the prophecies here recorded against him. We can therefore the more easily understand how these prophecies should speak so strongly of the pride and lordly bearing of Egypt and her king, as if an absolute and independent power had become enthroned there. And we may also understand how divine was the insight of Ezekiel, which enabled him at such a time to announce the downfall of Egypt from her high preeminence, and her final destination to a comparatively low place among the nations of the earth. It could not be human sagacity which, against all present appearances, spake so fearlessly of the coming future; it was the unerring foresight of the Spirit of God. The prophecy consists of four separate pieces, which have each their respective dates; the first coinciding with the tenth year of the prophet’s captivity, and the last in the order of insertion with the close of the twelfth. But one is introduced between the first and second, of a much later date, not having been given till the twenty-seventh year (Ezekiel 29:17, Ezekiel 30:19), and which had its place assigned there as the most appropriate position in respect to its contents. The first in order is a general announcement, in parabolical style, of the punishment of the king of Egypt on account of his intolerable self-sufficiency and pride.

Ezekiel 29:1 . In the tenth year, in the tenth month, in the twelfth day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me, saying,

Ezekiel 29:2 . Son of man, set thy face against Pharaoh king of Egypt, and prophesy against him, and against all Egypt.

Ezekiel 29:3 . Speak and say, Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great crocodile that lieth in the midst of his streams; (There can be no reasonable doubt that it is the crocodile which is here meant by תַּנִּים . Both it and the word leviathan are used in the prophetic Scriptures with considerable latitude, and in a kind of general sense denoting any huge aquatic animal, or the larger species of serpents monsters, whether of the water or of the dry land. The crocodile was this peculiarly in respect to the Nile, and precisely answers to the description here, being covered with scales, each with a high horned crest, which render the skin almost impenetrable through them, and give to the animal a very formidable appearance. To the ancients generally it was an object of great dread, though in some parts of Egypt it was worshipped as a divinity. More commonly, however, it was killed as an object of horror, and was usually caught by means of hooks. The term streams was very often applied to the Nile in antiquity, with reference to the canals and branches that were derived from it, and also probably its various mouths.) who says, My own is my river, and I have made it to me. (The expression here is evidently elliptical, “I have made (it) me,” for “I have made (it) to me.” The suffix has therefore the force of לי Heb.)

Ezekiel 29:4 . And I will put hooks in thy jaws, and I make the fish of thy streams to stick in thy scales; and I cause thee to come up out of the midst of thy streams, and all the fish of thy streams shall stick in thy scales. (The crocodile is here plainly regarded as the lord of the Nile, just as Pharaoh was of Egypt. The fish, therefore the smaller inhabitants of the water are viewed as properly belonging to this monster, and following his fate; so that when he was caught, and laid out as a helpless carcase on the sandy desert, these all came along with him, and lay there too. It intimates that Pharaoh and his people together should be brought forth as victims for slaughter.)

Ezekiel 29:5 . And I will throw thee to the wilderness, thee and all the fish of thy streams; upon the face of the ground shalt thou fall; thou shall not be gathered, and thou shalt not be assembled: I give thee for food to the beasts of the earth, and the fowls of heaven.

Ezekiel 29:6 . And all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am Jehovah, because of their being a staff of reed to the house of Israel.

Ezekiel 29:7 . When they take hold of thee by thy hand, thou art crushed, and rendest for them the whole shoulder; and when they lean upon thee, thou breakest, and lettest all their loins stand. (That is, as I understand it, lettest them stand the best way they can, stand themselves, if they are able for it if not, fall. Most modern commentators consider that there is a transposition of the letters, and that הַעֲמַדְתָּ is for חַמְעַדְתָּ , which is used in Psalms 69:23, in connection also with loins; so that the sense would be, and dost make all their loins to shake. This seems to have been the view taken by the earlier translators, as the LXX. has συνέκλασας ; the Vulgate, dissolvisti; the Syr., concussisti. Yet I do not feel warranted in resorting to this licence with the text. Besides the meaning obtained is rather flat. The mere crushing of the reed is said to have rent their shoulder by the splinters that flew off from it; and one would naturally expect something more to come from the utter breaking of it than the mere shaking or trembling of their loins. A piercing to death would have been more according to our expectations. The prophet, as I understand him, refrains from expressing this result in so many words; but yet virtually expresses it, by saying that the effect of leaning on the reed was that it broke and left the loins to stand for themselves loins that felt they could not so stand, and whose worst misfortune was to be thus bereft of the power that had failed them; for falling and destruction then became inevitable. The image is plainly borrowed from Isaiah 36:6; but is to be understood of present not of former times.)

This passage represents, under striking and appropriate imagery, the high sense the king of Egypt had of his invincible might and glory, and the state of utter helplessness and ruin to which he should be reduced; as also the damage that should be sustained by those who were dependent upon him for help. It was the old controversy which had formerly been waged in the land of Egypt itself, only under a somewhat modified form, and with altered relations in respect to the covenant-people. The Pharaoh of Moses time stepped forth into open rivalry with God, and sought in personal conflict to contend with him for the mastery. The Pharaoh of Ezekiel’s time, presuming on his godlike sufficiency, gave himself out as not only able to stand his own ground against all powerful assailants, but as also qualified to take the place of God in regard to the covenant-people, and minister help to them in the hour of need. But never could the means of Israel’s deliverance come from that old house of bondage; and the very attempt to seek it there was to be met with the rod of chastisement. So far, indeed, the resorting of Zedekiah and his people to such an helper did avail them, as it caused the Babylonians to raise for a time the siege of Jerusalem; but it was only to provoke these powerful adversaries to a severer vengeance, and to accelerate the day of calamity. The staff altogether failed them, when they were especially desiring to lean on it; and they were left a helpless prey in the hands of their ruthless conquerors. But this proved insufficiency on the part of Pharaoh to give efficient aid was only the prelude to his own overthrow; and the mournful reverses which were to befall him and his land were to be such as would effectually prevent him from ever henceforth presuming to act as he had been impiously doing in the past the part of God. This, however, is more plainly disclosed in the verses that follow:

Ezekiel 29:8 . Therefore, thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I am going to bring upon thee a sword, and I will cut off from thee man and beast.

Ezekiel 29:9 . And the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a desert; and they shall know that I am Jehovah; because he says, The river is mine, and I have made it.

Ezekiel 29:10 . Therefore, behold, I am against thee and against thy streams; and I will make the land of Egypt utterly waste, and a desolation from Migdol to Syene, and to the border of Ethiopia. (Our translators have obscured the meaning of this clause, by translating Migdol, and rendering, from the tower of Syene. The words mark the two extremities of the land: Migdol, the same as Magdolum, a fortress near Pelusium on the north, and Syene in the farthest south; then across to the borders of Ethiopia.)

Ezekiel 29:11 . No foot of man shall pass through it, nor foot of beast pass through it; and it shall not be inhabited forty years.

Ezekiel 29:12 . And I will make the land of Egypt desolate in the midst of countries that are desolate, and her cities in the midst of the cities that are laid waste shall be desolate forty years; and I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, and sow them among the countries.

Ezekiel 29:13 . For thus saith the Lord Jehovah, At the end of forty years I will gather the Egyptians from among the peoples whither they were scattered;

Ezekiel 29:14 . And I will turn again the captivity of Egypt, and I make them return to the land of Pathros, to the land of their nativity; (By Pathros is understood the upper part of Egypt, as distinguished from the lower the Thebaid. That, it is now generally agreed, was the most ancient part of Egypt, as to civilisation and art “the school of learning and the parent of Egyptian science,” as Wilkinson calls it (vol. i. p. 4). He also afterwards quotes Aristotle’s words, “that the Thebaid was formerly called Egypt;” and those of Herodotus, that “Egypt in ancient times was called Thebes.” This part of the country in particular is here named the birthplace of the Egyptians, or rather, Egypt under this name is styled the native region of the people; because that district appears to have had the priority over the rest, and now matters had to start as it were from a new beginning.) and they shall be there a low kingdom.

Ezekiel 29:15 . It shall be the lowest of kingdoms, and shall not lift itself up any more above the nations; and I diminish them, so that they shall not be great among the nations.

Ezekiel 29:16 . And it shall not be any more to the house of Israel for a confidence, a remembrancer of iniquity, (It was from Egypt setting herself forth, and being accepted by Israel as a ground of confidence, that she was a remembrancer of iniquity; for she thus served as a witness in regard to the people’s departure from God. But she was to be too much reduced to do that any more.) by their turning away after them; and they shall know that I am the Lord Jehovah.

In this part of the prophecy we have another very peculiar exemplification of the characteristic style of our prophet, in respect to his disposition to serve himself of history for the particular hue and form of his announcements. But as we cannot properly elucidate the meaning, and exhibit the fulfilment of this portion, without referring to the additional portion which occupies the remainder of the chapter, and which may fitly be regarded as the complement of the one before us, we shall first give this, that we may have the whole in our view at once.

Ezekiel 29:17 . And it came to pass in the twenty and seventh year, in the first month, in the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me, saying,

Ezekiel 29:18 . Son of man, Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon, caused his army to serve a great service against Tyre, every head made bald, and every shoulder peeled, and there were not wages to him and his army from Tyre, for (or after) the service that he served against it. (I give here the most literal rendering possible, to show that the words do not, as formerly mentioned, imply an utter failure and the loss of all profit in respect to the siege of Tyre, but only one in no degree proportioned to the time and labour expended, and in that respect as good as none. For the service is equivalent to according to the service; so עַל is used in other places; for example, in Psalms 110:4, “after (according to) the order of Melchizedec.”)

Ezekiel 29:19 . Therefore, thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold I give Nebuchadrezzar, the king of Babylon, the land of Egypt; and he shall bear off her store, ( חַמוֹן cannot signify multitude here in the sense of crowds or masses of people; for in that case נָשָׂא could not have been the verb coupled with it. This plainly denotes that it was property of some sort which Nebuchadnezzar was to take up and carry away with him. It was this also, and not people, which formed a proper reward for him. I therefore take the word here, as in Ezekiel 7:12-13, and in Ezekiel 30:4, etc., for multitude, in the sense of great possessions store.) and seize her spoil, and lay hold of her prey; and she shall be for wages to his army.

Ezekiel 29:20 . For his work which he served in it, I give to him the land of Egypt, because they did it for me, saith the Lord Jehovah.

Ezekiel 29:21 . In that day I shall make a horn to bud forth to the house of Israel, and to thee I will give the opening of the mouth in their midst; and they shall know that I am Jehovah.

Viewing this prophecy on Egypt in a general light, and with respect more especially to the part assigned in it to Nebuchadnezzar, there is a certain amount of fulfilment which it is not very difficult to establish. Take for example the distinct and so far satisfactory explanation of the matter by Sir G. Wilkinson. He had previously related the earlier successes of Apries, then the reverses that began to come upon him, issuing in the revolt of Amasis, and the defeat and ultimately the death of Apries. Having stated that the information on these points is given on the authority of Herodotus, who professed to have derived it from the Egyptian priests, he proceeds: “But no mention was made of the signal defeat their army experienced, or of that loss of territory in Syria, which resulted from the successes of the victorious Nebuchadnezzar. It is therefore reasonable to conclude, they disguised the truth from the Greek historian; and without mentioning the disgrace which had befallen their country, and the interposition of a foreign power, attributed the change in the succession, and the elevation of Amasis to the throne, solely to his ambition and the choice of the Egyptian soldiery. Megasthenes and Berosus affirm that Nebuchadnezzar conquered a great part of Africa, and having invaded Egypt, took many captives, who were committed to the charge of persons appointed to conduct them after him to Babylon, But as this is said to have happened at the period of his father’s death, and consequently in the reign of Necho, it cannot refer to the point in question. Josephus, however, expressly states that the Chaldean monarch ‘led an army into Coelo-Syria, of which he obtained possession, and then waged war on the Ammonites and Moabites. These being subdued, he invaded and conquered Egypt, and having put the king of that country to death, he appointed another in his stead’ (Antiq. x. 9. 7). If Josephus be correct in his statement, there is reason to suppose he alludes to Apries being deposed and succeeded by Amasis; and we can readily imagine that the Assyrians, having extended their conquests to the extremity of Palestine, would, on the rumour of intestine commotions in Egypt, hasten to take advantage of the opportunity thus afforded them of attacking the country. And the civil war and the fatal consequences of the disturbed state of Egypt appear to be noticed by Isaiah in the following prophecy: ‘I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians, and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour, city against city, and kingdom against kingdom; , . and the Egyptians will I give over into the hand of a cruel lord, and a fierce king shall rule over them’ (Ezekiel 19:2, Ezekiel 19:11).

“From a comparison of all these authorities, I conclude that the civil war between Apries and Amasis did not terminate in the single conflict at Momemphis, but lasted several years; and that either Amasis solicited the aid and intervention of Nebuchadnezzar, or this prince, availing himself of the disordered state of the country, of his own accord invaded it, deposed the rightful sovereign, and placed Amasis on the throne, on condition of paying tribute to the Assyrians. The injury done to the land of Egypt by this invasion, and the disgrace with which the Egyptians felt themselves overwhelmed after such an event, would justify the account given in the Bible of the fall of Egypt; and to witness many of their compatriots taken captive to Babylon, and to become tributary to an enemy whom they held in abhorrence, would be considered by the Egyptians the greatest calamity, as though they had for ever lost their station in the scale of nations.” (Wilkinson’s Ancient Egyptians, vol. i. p. 176-8.)

It is quite sufficient, in a general point of view, to justify the prediction uttered by Ezekiel, regarding the adverse change that was presently to be brought over the affairs of Egypt by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar. And it may still further be confirmed by the nearly contemporary word of Jeremiah, which was spoken after he had been violently carried to Egypt, and in the immediate prospect of the troubles it foretold. Had the troubles not actually come, it certainly would never have been allowed to stand among his writings: “Behold, I will send and take Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and will set his throne upon these stones that I have hid; and he shall spread his royal pavilion over them. And he comes, he smites the land of Egypt such as are for death, to death; and such as are for captivity, to captivity; and such as are for the sword, to the sword. And I kindle a fire in the houses of the gods of Egypt; and he burns them, and carries them away captives; and he clothes himself with the land of Egypt as a shepherd puts on his garments; and he goes forth from it in peace” (chap. Jeremiah 43:10-12).

But it is obvious, admitting all this, that a wide chasm still exists between the terms of Ezekiel’s prophecy, and the recorded or even probable facts of history, if the prophecy is to be taken in the simply literal sense. For what it predicts respecting the land of Egypt is a forty years desolation, during which it should not so much as be trodden by man or beast should be, in fact, in a wilderness condition; while the inhabitants also should be dispersed into other countries, and only restored again after the forty years had run their course. What is there in the annals of ancient Egypt to bear out such statements? “We cannot prove,” says Bishop Newton in his work on the Prophecies, “from heathen authors that this desolation of the country continued exactly forty years, though it is likely enough that this as well as the other conquered countries did not shake off the Babylonian yoke till the time of Cyrus, which was about forty years after the conquest of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar.” But even if we could prove what is thus held to have been within the bounds of the probable, it would still avail little to the point under consideration; for the word of prophecy is an absolute and determinate thing it cannot be verified by halves. It is either wholly true, namely, in the sense of its real import, or it is not entitled to rank as prophecy at all. And such a subjection as the Bishop notices of Egypt to Babylon, even supposing it to have lasted precisely forty years, comes very far short of that blighted and desolate condition, as of an untrodden wilderness, coupled with the general dispersion of her people, of which the prophet speaks. It is as certain as anything in ancient history can be, that a sweeping desolation of this kind never in reality took place in Egypt during the period of Chaldean ascendancy. And we cannot but express our wonder how interpreters, with this palpable fact staring them in the face, should be able to glide over the surface of what is written in the easy manner they do, as if they needed to look no farther than to the literal sense of the words. Literalism here, in the hands of a fair and honest interpreter, can lead but to one result the manifest failure of the prediction. But is it just or reasonable to deal after this fashion with a prophet, whose representations usually partake so much of the ideal, and with whom the ideal so frequently clothes itself in the garb of history? Were it not more in accordance with the true interpreting spirit to inquire whether the definite terms and external conditions of the prophecy might not be here also used in a historico-ideal sense, symbolical and not literal, expressive of the nature rather than the precise bounds and limits of the predicted events? Such a course is the more called for on the present occasion, as the period of forty years is one that stands out so prominently in the history of God’s dispensations, and one that on this account had already been employed by the prophet in an ideal manner respecting the future treatment of the covenant-people. In the vision of the iniquity bearing, in Ezekiel 4:0, he had been commanded to lie forty days on his right side as typical of the forty years during which they were to be dealt with in chastisement for their sins; a word, as we there showed, which could mean nothing else than that another season was to pass over them, similar in its character as a time of chastisement and discipline to that of the forty years’ sojourn in the wilderness, but by no means corresponding to it in duration. So again, we have seen (at Ezekiel 20:35, etc.) that, without mentioning the years, the prophet names the wilderness condition, with its stringent dealings and sifting trials, as what must be undergone by Israel anew, while he not obscurely intimates that what was to be should not be the mere copy of what had been not the literal repetition of the wilderness life, but the substantial renewal of its spiritual treatment. And why should it be thought that the reference here to the same great period is to be understood otherwise? Even Jerome, however he failed in making a right application of the idea, could not overlook the respect had to the import of the number forty: “which,” he says, “is always the number of chastisement and affliction. Whence also Moses, and Elias, and the Saviour himself, fasted forty days and nights, and for forty years the people were kept in solitude.” Let the prophet thus be taken as his own interpreter, and we shall naturally conclude that what he meant by Egypt becoming a desolation and a wilderness for forty years, was that a season of severe chastisement and hard discipline should be made to pass over them, similar to what in days of yore had passed over Israel when inhabiting the desert. It was to be with these proud and fleshly Egyptians precisely as it had then been with the proud and fleshly Israelites; their pleasant land was, as it were, to be converted into a lonesome wilderness a field of trial, where “alone they must strive with God,” and be brought down from their self-complacent trust, to learn and realize their own nothingness. So that it is not the precise number of years that we are to look to these only served to indicate, through their historical value, the character of the predicted dealings; and if something like an external correspondence may be descried in the first period of Egypt’s calamities with that particular number of years, it should only be regarded as a sign in Providence to help to the deeper import of the prophecy.

There is indeed some sort of outward correspondence discernible, though not in the way noticed by Bishop Newton. From what has been already mentioned, there is good ground for believing that the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar took place about the commencement of the reign of Amasis. Now this monarch, it is known, occupied the throne for a very long period according to Herodotus, for 44 years, and according to Diodorus, 55 years; and it is also known, both from the historical reports and from the character of the monuments erected by him, that Egypt enjoyed a high degree of prosperity in his reign, which in the circumstances must have chiefly belonged to the later portion of it, after Egypt had recovered to some extent from the blow of the Chaldean conquest, consequently somewhere toward the completion of the forty years. But as this point is incapable of proper proof, so it is not to be pressed; nothing material depends on it. It is of necessity the character of the approaching troubles, not their precise duration, of which we are chiefly to think under the forty years wilderness desolation; the more especially as the dealing of severity referred to was not confined to one period, but was often repeated; and in the time of Cambyses, it returned with still more painful and humiliating circumstances, than in the days of Nebuchadnezzar. In like manner, what is said in the prophecy of the scattering and the gathering again of the people of Egypt, is another point in Israel’s history one, as a chastisement, entirely similar in nature to that of the sojourn in the wilderness which was also to have its parallel in the treatment of Egypt; and the very circumstance of the two being coupled together the scattering among the nations being represented as coinciding with the forty years wilderness condition is itself a clear indication that this as well as the other must be understood as an ideal representation. It was not the few captives that were carried away by the Chaldeans to Babylon of which the prophet spake, that was nothing more than the external sign of the far worse calamity which his words properly express; they intimated that the same shattering was ready to befall the power of Egypt, which was accomplished on Israel by their dispersion among the Gentiles; that though still, perhaps, resident within the boundaries of the land, their independence was to be as much broken, and their forces as scattered, as if they were literally driven into exile. In short, Egypt in her approaching calamities was to become a sort of shadow of Israel the judgments which befell the one were in substance to have their echo in the other; and hence the unspeakable folly (for to this grand lesson the whole points) of Israel going to lean on a power which was utterly impotent to help itself, which was destined to travel through the same sore visitations of disaster and trouble that brought Israel to the dust.

Nay, there was a difference in the cases, as well as an agreement, which still more strongly marked the folly of such behaviour on the part of Israel. For Egypt, the prophet intimates, though not to be entirely destroyed, was yet never to regain her former position; she was to recover from the extreme depression awaiting her, but still only to be in a low condition lower than the other kingdoms of the earth, that is, than its larger monarchies. In the evil only was it to stand parallel with Israel, but not in the good. For in Israel, by reason of the covenant, there was a germ of strength and glory which belonged peculiarly to herself, and which the very downfall of Egypt and such temporal monarchies would only serve to develope. Therefore it is said at the close, “in that day I shall make a horn to bud forth to the house of Israel” in the very time of Egypt’s humiliation, and in consequence of it, shall the Divine power inherent in the covenant-people spring up into new vigour. As the false worldly element goes down, of which Egypt was the representative, the true spiritual element shall rise up afresh. A truth for all times! May the Spirit write it in our hearts! It is only as the rod of the flesh and the world is broken, that the Divine kingdom of Jesus flourishes in the soul or in the world. The more always that the Egypt falls in us, the more will the horn of Israel bud forth; so that we also, like the prophet, shall get the opening of the mouth, to speak of the Lord’s doings and to show forth his praise among men. And co-eval with the putting down of all power and authority and dominion that is of man, shall be the triumph of the kingdom of Christ, and the complete establishment of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.

The explanation now given of this prophecy, proceeding on the characteristic style of Ezekiel as exemplified in other portions of his writings, will be seen to be very different from the view of those who would resolve the peculiar language employed into mere hyperbole. (This view was adopted by the late Dr. Arnold, who says on the prophecy before us, “This is a striking instance of the hyperbolical language of the prophecies, as far as regards the historical sense of them. The prophecy says, ‘I will make the land of Egypt utterly waste,’ etc. It is perfectly evident that we are to seek for no literal fulfilment of this. But I think, also, that the expression ‘forty years’ is no more to be taken literally than the other expressions; and indeed it is inconsistent to seek chronological exactness where there is evidently no historical exactness intended” (Sermons on Prophecy, p. 48). The prophets, however, no more than other writers, must play at random with definite periods and strong descriptions; and if they did not mean by these historical exactness, we may be sure there was exactness of some other kind, which warranted them to write as they did.”) As for the opposite class, who will hear of nothing but literalisms whose key-note here as elsewhere is, it is a literal Egypt that was to be desolated, and a literal Nebuchadnezzar that was to desolate it, and why not also a literal forty years and a literal dispersion? It is enough to say that the method of Ezekiel in other places shows how he is to be understood here, and that for many wise and important reasons God has not chosen to make his prophetic communications always run in a. style the meaning of which lies on the surface; indeed, has seldom done so. And let such literalists themselves show how the infidel is to be answered, when he tells them that the literality they contend for palpably wants its requisite verification in the facts of history. With their style of interpretation we should feel constrained to abandon the veracity of the prediction.

We shall only advert, in conclusion, to the loose application sometimes made in popular works on prophecy of the language employed in this prediction regarding the desolation of Egypt, to its circumstances in the present day. It ought to be borne in mind that this is not strictly warranted by the language itself, which speaks only of what was to be done to humble the power of Egypt, and to reduce it from the proud elevation of a world monarchy a rival to the kingdom of God, and a temptation to his people to depart from him. When Egypt finally ceased to occupy, or to be in circumstances to aspire after that condition, the prophecy might be said to have taken full effect the desolations were accomplished. Now that the relations are so completely changed, and Egypt might be anything so far as the cause of God generally is concerned, the territory is in a manner gone on which the prophecy moved; and if Egypt were to become ever so prosperous, it would not in the least affect the truth of what is here written concerning it. The contrary and, as I think, mistaken view naturally leads those who adopt it to present exaggerated accounts of the difference between ancient and modern Egypt in population and resources to represent the latter as nothing in comparison of the former. There is undoubtedly a considerable inferiority, yet by no means such as to justify us in regarding the one as a desolation compared with the other. Late investigations have satisfactorily proved that the available ground for cultivation in modern Egypt is not smaller, but probably somewhat larger than it was in ancient times. (Wilkinson’s Ancient Egyptians, vol. i. p. 216, and Encyclopædia Britannica, art. Egypt.) Yet the entire area of the country is only about 11,000 square miles, not quite a fifth of England and Wales, and the arable portion scarcely exceeds 2300, while in England and Wales there are upwards of 40,000 of arable and meadow land. Small as the area of Egypt is, it is understood to have contained, till within a recent period, not far from 3,000,000 inhabitants a population fully equal to that of Great Britain in proportion to extent of surface, and at least three times as great in proportion to the extent of arable ground. But ancient writers (Diodorus and Josephus) speak of it as having had a population of more than twice as much of 7,000,000 at a period shortly before the Christian era a most incredible number, unless, as Wilkinson suggests, we should include in the reckoning some of the neighbouring provinces belonging to Egypt. And they speak also of 30,000 towns and villages in it, which, even taking the population at 7,000,000 for the whole country, would yield the round sum of 330 to each. Notable towns and villages indeed! or as Herodotus calls them, “populous cities!” It is manifest that the statements of ancient writers on this head are of the most random and exaggerated character; and it may well be doubted if the population of Egypt proper ever exceeded four or five millions. Its arable ground, if all cultivated, is thought equal, at least in good years, to the support of seven or eight millions; but the produce is far from being uniform, and Egypt from the earliest times was always an exporting country in grain. She had to a considerable extent to supply surrounding countries a circumstance overlooked by Mr. Lane in his Modern Egyptians, when he accredits the ancient statements respecting the populousness of the country under the Pharaohs. We throw out these remarks merely to show how unwise it is to point to the existing condition of Egypt in connection with the prophecy under consideration; and to recall attention to what was its real object the downfall of Egypt as one of the great ancient monarchies, and its reduction to a comparatively inferior place a place in which it could have no power to withstand the advancement of God’s kingdom, or withdraw the allegiance of its members from the covenant of God. This, which we hold to be the real import of the prediction, has beyond all question been most completely verified.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Ezekiel 29". "Fairbairn's Commentary on Ezekiel, Jonah and Pastoral Epistles". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/fbn/ezekiel-29.html.
 
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