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Bible Commentaries

Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary

Isaiah 20

Verses 1-2

This section, commencing in the form of historic prose, introduces itself thus: “In the year that Tartan came to Ashdod, Sargon the king of Asshur having sent him ( and he made war against Ashdod, and captured it) : at that time Jehovah spake through Yeshayahu the son of Amoz as follows,” i.e., He communicated the following revelation through the medium of Isaiah ( b'yad , as in Isaiah 37:24; Jeremiah 37:2, and many other passages). The revelation itself was attached to a symbolical act. B'yad (lit. “by the hand of”) refers to what was about to be made known through the prophet by means of the command that was given him; in other words, to Isaiah 20:3, and indirectly to Isaiah 20:2. Tartan (probably the same man) is met with in 2 Kings 18:17 as the chief captain of Sennacherib. No Assyrian king of the name of Sargon is mentioned anywhere else in the Old Testament; but it may now be accepted as an established result of the researches which have been made, that Sargon was the successor of Shalmanassar, and that Shalmaneser (Shalman, Hosea 10:14), Sargon, Sennacherib, and Esarhaddon, are the names of the four Assyrian kings who were mixed up with the closing history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. It was Longperrier who was the first to establish the identity of the monarch who built the palaces at Khorsabad, which form the north-eastern corner of ancient Nineveh, with the Sargon of the Bible. We are now acquainted with a considerable number of brick, harem, votive-table, and other inscriptions which bear the name of this king, and contain all kinds of testimony concerning himself.

(Note: See Oppert, Expédition, i. 328-350, and the picture of Sargon in his war-chariot in Rawlinson's Five Great Monarchies, i. 368; compare also p. 304 (prisoners taken by Sargon), p. 352 (the plan of his palace), p. 483 (a glass vessel with his name), and many other engravings in vol. ii.)

It was he, not Shalmanassar, who took Samaria after a three years' siege; and in the annalistic inscription he boasts of having conquered the city, and removed the house of Omri to Assyria. Oppert is right in calling attention to the fact, that in 2 Kings 18:10 the conquest is not attributed to Shalmanassar himself, but to the army. Shalmanassar died in front of Samaria; and Sargon not only put himself at the head of the army, but seized upon the throne, in which he succeeded in establishing himself, after a contest of several years' duration with the legitimate heirs and their party. He was therefore a usurper.

(Note: See Oppert, Les Inscriptions Assyriennes des Sargonides et les Fastes de Ninive (Versailles, 1862), and Rawlinson (vol. ii. 406ff.), who here agrees with Oppert in all essential points. Consequently there can no longer be any thought of identifying Sargon with Shalmanassar (see Brandis, Ueber den historischen Gewinn aus der Entzifferung der assyr. Inschriften, 1856, p. 48ff.). Rawlinson himself at first thought they were the same person (vid., Journal of the Asiatic Society, xii. 2, 419), until gradually the evidence increased that Sargon and Shalmanassar were the names of two different kings, although no independent inscription of the latter, the actual besieger of Samaria, has yet been found.)

Whether his name as it appears on the inscriptions is Sar-kin or not, and whether it signifies the king de facto as distinguished from the king de jure, we will not attempt to determine now.

(Note: Hitzig ventures a derivation of the name from the Zend; and Grotefend compares it with the Chaldee Sârēk , Daniel 6:3 (in his Abhandlung über Anlage und Zerstörung der Gebäude von Nimrud, 1851).)

This Sargon, the founder of a new Assyrian dynasty, who reigned from 721-702 (according to Oppert), and for whom there is at all events plenty of room between 721-20 and the commencement of Sennacherib's reign, first of all blockaded Tyre for five years after the fall of Samaria, or rather brought to an end the siege of Tyre which had been begun by Shalmanassar (Jos. Ant. ix. 14, 2), though whether it was to a successful end or not is quite uncertain. He then pursued with all the greater energy his plan for following up the conquest of Samaria with the subjugation of Egypt, which was constantly threatening the possessions of Assyria in western Asia, either by instigation or support. The attack upon Ashdod was simply a means to this end. As the Philistines were led to join Egypt, not only by their situation, but probably by kinship of tribe as well, the conquest of Ashdod - a fortress so strong, that, according to Herodotus (ii. 157), Psammetichus besieged it for twenty-nine years - was an indispensable preliminary to the expedition against Egypt. When Alexander the Great marched against Egypt, he had to do the same with Gaza. How long Tartan required is not to be gathered from Isaiah 20:1. But if he conquered it as quickly as Alexander conquered Gaza - viz. in five months - it is impossible to understand why the following prophecy should defer for three years the subjugation of Ethiopia and Egypt. The words, “and fought against Ashdod, and took it,” must therefore be taken as anticipatory and parenthetical.

It was not after the conquest of Ashdod, but in the year in which the siege commenced, that Isaiah received the following admonition: “Go and loosen the smock-frock from off thy loins, and take off thy shoes from thy feet. And he did so, went stripped and barefooted.” We see from this that Isaiah was clothed in the same manner as Elijah, who wore a fur coat (2 Kings 1:8, cf., Zechariah 13:4; Hebrews 11:37), and John the Baptist, who had a garment of camel hair and a leather girdle round it (Matthew 3:4); for sak is a coarse linen or hairy overcoat of a dark colour (Revelation 6:12, cf., Isaiah 50:3), such as was worn by mourners, either next to the skin ( ‛al - habbâsâr , 1 Kings 21:27; 2 Kings 6:30; Job 16:15) or over the tunic, in either case being fastened by a girdle on account of its want of shape, for which reason the verb c hâgar is the word commonly used to signify the putting on of such a garment, instead of lâbash . The use of the word ârōm does not prove that the former was the case in this instance (see, on the contrary, 2 Samuel 6:20, compared with 2 Samuel 6:14 and John 21:7). With the great importance attached to the clothing in the East, where the feelings upon this point are peculiarly sensitive and modest, a person was looked upon as stripped and naked if he had only taken off his upper garment. What Isaiah was directed to do, therefore, was simply opposed to common custom, and not to moral decency. He was to lay aside the dress of a mourner and preacher of repentance, and to have nothing on but his tunic ( c etoneth ); and in this, as well as barefooted, he was to show himself in public. This was the costume of a man who had been robbed and disgraced, or else of a beggar or prisoner of war. The word c ēn (so) is followed by the inf. abs., which develops the meaning, as in Isaiah 5:5; Isaiah 58:6-Judges :.

Verses 3-4

It is not till Isaiah has carried out the divine instructions, that he learns the reason for this command to strip himself, and the length of time that he is to continue so stripped. “And Jehovah said, As my servant Yesha'yahu goeth naked and barefooted, a sign and type for three years long over Egypt and over Ethiopia, so will the king of Asshur carry away the prisoners of Egypt and the exiles of Ethiopia, children and old men, naked and barefooted, and with their seat uncovered - a shame to Egypt.” The expression “as he goeth” ( c a'asher hâlac ) stands here at the commencement of the symbolical action, but it is introduced as if with a retrospective glance at its duration for three years, unless indeed the preterite hâlac stands here, as it frequently does, to express what has already commenced, and is still continuing and customary (compare, for example, Job 1:4 and Psalms 1:1). The strange and unseemly dress of the prophet, whenever he appeared in his official capacity for three whole years, was a prediction of the fall of the Egypto-Ethiopian kingdom, which was to take place at the end of these three years. Egypt and Ethiopia are as closely connected here as Israel and Judah in Isaiah 11:12. They were at that time one kingdom, so that the shame of Egypt was the shame of Ethiopia also. ‛ Ervâh is a shameful nakedness, and ‛ervath Mitzrayim is in apposition to all that precedes it in Isaiah 20:4. Shēth is the seat or hinder part, as in 2 Samuel 10:4, from shâthâh , to set or seat; it is a substantive form, like בבּן עץ רע שׁם , with the third radical letter dropt. Chashūphay has the same ay as the words in Isaiah 19:9; Judges 5:15; Jeremiah 22:14, which can hardly be regarded as constructive forms, as Ewald, Knobel, and Gesenius suppose (although ־י of the construct has arisen from ־י ), but rather as a singular form with a collective signification. The emendations suggested, viz., c hasūphē by Olshausen, and c hasūphı̄ with a connecting i by Meier, are quite unnecessary.

Verses 5-6

But if Egypt and Ethiopia are thus shamefully humbled, what kind of impression will this make upon those who rely upon the great power that is supposed to be both unapproachable and invincible? “And they cry together, and behold themselves deceived by Ethiopia, to which they looked, and by Egypt, in which they gloried. And the inhabitant of this coast-land saith in that day, Behold, thus it happens to those to whom we looked, whither we fled for help to deliver us from the king of Asshur: and how should we, we escape?” א י , which signifies both an island and a coast-land, is used as the name of Philistia and Zephaniah 2:5, and as the name of Phoenicia in Isaiah 23:2, Isaiah 23:6; and for this reason Knobel and others understand it here as denoting the former with the inclusion of the latter. But as the Assyrians had already attacked both Phoenicians and Philistines at the time when they marched against Egypt, there can be no doubt that Isaiah had chiefly the Judaeans in his mind. This was the interpretation given by Jerome ( “Judah trusted in the Egyptians, and Egypt will be destroyed”), and it has been adopted by Ewald, Drechsler, Luzzatto, and Meier. The expressions are the same as those in which a little further on we find Isaiah reproving the Egyptian tendencies of Judah's policy. At the same time, by “the inhabitant of this coast-land” we are not to understand Judah exclusively, but the inhabitants of Palestine generally, with whom Judah was mixed up to its shame, because it had denied its character as the nation of Jehovah in a manner so thoroughly opposed to its theocratic standing.

Unfortunately, we know very little concerning the Assyrian campaigns in Egypt. But we may infer from Nahum 3:8-2 Samuel :, according to which the Egyptian Thebes had fallen (for it is held up before Nineveh as the mirror of its own fate), that after the conquest of Ashdod Egypt was also overcome by Sargon's army. In the grand inscription found in the halls of the palace at Khorsabad, Sargon boasts of a successful battle which he had fought with Pharaoh Sebech at Raphia, and in consequence of which the latter became tributary to him. Still further on he relates that he had dethroned the rebellious king of Ashdod, and appointed another in his place, but that the people removed him, and chose another king; after which he marched with his army against Ashdod, and when the king fled from him into Egypt, he besieged Ashdod, and took it. Then follows a difficult and mutilated passage, in which Rawlinson agrees with Oppert in finding an account of the complete subjection of Sebech (Sabako?).

(Note: Five Great Monarchies, vol. ii. pp. 416-7; compare Oppert, Sargonides, pp. 22, 26-7. With regard to one passage of the annals, which contains an account of a successful battle fought at Ra-bek (Heliopolis), see Journal Asiat. xii. 462ff.; Brandis, p. 51.)

Nothing can be built upon this, however; and it must also remain uncertain whether, even if the rest is correctly interpreted, Isaiah 20:1 relates to that conquest of Ashdod which was followed by the dethroning of the rebellious king and the appointment of another, or to the final conquest by which it became a colonial city of Assyria.

(Note: Among the pictures from Khorsabad which have been published by Botta, there is a burning fortress that has been taken by storm. Isidor Löwenstern (in his Essai, Paris 1845) pronounced it to be Ashdod; but Rödiger regarded the evidence as inconclusive. Nevertheless, Löwenstern was able to claim priority over Rawlinson in several points of deciphering ( Galignani's Messenger, Rev. 28, 1850). He read in the inscription the king's name, Sarak.)

This conquest Sargon ascribes to himself in person, so that apparently we must think of that conquest which was carried out by Tartan; and in that case the words, “he fought against it,” etc., need not be taken as anticipatory. It is quite sufficient, that the monuments seem to intimate that the conquest of Samaria and Ashdod was followed by the subjugation of the Egypto-Ethiopian kingdom. But inasmuch as Judah, trusting in the reed of Egypt, fell away from Assyria under Hezekiah, and Sennacherib had to make war upon Egypt again, to all appearance the Assyrians never had much cause to congratulate themselves upon their possession of Egypt, and that for reasons which are not difficult to discover. At the time appointed by the prophecy, Egypt came under the Assyrian yoke, from which it was first delivered by Psammetichus; but, as the constant wars between Assyria and Egypt clearly show, it never patiently submitted to that yoke for any length of time. The confidence which Judah placed in Egypt turned out most disastrously for Judah itself, just as Isaiah predicted here. But the catastrophe that occurred in front of Jerusalem did not put an end to Assyria, nor did the campaigns of Sargon and Sennacherib bring Egypt to an end. And, on the other hand, the triumphs of Jehovah and of the prophecy concerning Assyria were not the means of Egypt's conversion. In all these respects the fulfilment showed that there was an element of human hope in the prophecy, which made the distant appear to be close at hand. And this element it eliminated. For the fulfilment of a prophecy is divine, but the prophecy itself is both divine and human.

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The Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary is a derivative of a public domain electronic edition.
Bibliographical Information
Keil, Carl Friedrich & Delitzsch, Franz. "Commentary on Isaiah 20". Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary. 1854-1889.