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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 20

Old & New Testament Restoration CommentaryRestoration Commentary

Verses 1-2

Isa 20:1-2

Isaiah 20:1


Although this chapter has the same subject as the previous one, it came at a later date and was attended by different circumstances. There are several things of particular interest in these brief verses: (1) there is the three-year witness of Isaiah’s going naked and barefoot; (2) there is the only reference to Sargon in the Old Testament; and (3) the absolute promise of God to Judah of their deliverance from this particular threat of the Assyrians.

Our title here mentions only Egypt, although it also includes Ethiopia. Both countries at the time of this prophecy were united under an Ethiopian dynasty.

Isaiah 20:1

"In the year that Tartan came unto Ashdod, when Sargon the king of Assyria sent him, and he fought against Ashdod and took it."

Ashdod was one of the five principal cities of the Philistines, the others being Gaza, Ashkelon, Ekron and Gath. Ashdod is called Azotas in Acts 8:40. It was a stronghold, a kind of key to the capture of Egypt, and it was the site of a temple of Dagon, which was destroyed by Samson.

Until recently, Tartan was thought to be the personal name of Sargon’s general in charge of the war against Ashdod; but, "The word is not a proper name, but a title of office, the equivalent of `commander-in-chief.’” Until excavations in this century, there were some who questioned the very existence of Sargon; but the excavations have revealed again the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible. "Sargon founded the last and greatest of the Assyrian dynasties; he was the successor to Shalmaneser and the father of Sennacherib.” In the Bible, Shalmaneser is apparently the conqueror; but it seems that the final phase of the conquest was completed by Sargon in 722 B.C., a fact confirmed in 2 Kings 18:10 in the statement, not that "He took it," but that "They took it." Sargon succeeded Shalmaneser just before the siege of Samaria was completed in 722 B.C., and reigned till 705 B.C., when he was succeeded by Sennacherib.”

"It is possible to date this passage very precisely. Isaiah 20:1 makes mention of the fact that Isaiah’s symbolic act (going naked and barefoot) was interpreted to the people in the year that Ashdod fell to Sargon’s commander-in-chief. Sargon’s inscriptions date that event in 711 B.C.” Since Isaiah had already been walking naked and barefoot for a period of three years, that symbolical protest actually began in 714 B.C.

Isaiah 20:2

"At that time Jehovah spake by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, Go, and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put thy shoe from off thy foot. And he did so, walking naked and barefoot."

"Sackcloth was regarded as the appropriate dress for prophets; it was made of the coarse hair of the goat." As for the instruction here to walk naked and barefoot, it is a mistake to think that Isaiah was totally nude. Hailey’s quotation from Delitzsch has this: "What Isaiah was directed to do was simply opposed to common custom, not to moral decency.” No doubt, he actually wore a loin cloth or some other very abbreviated garment. This instead of the prophet’s customary dress was sensational enough. It is amazing that very respected commentators will flatly contradict the Word of God on a matter of this kind. Barnes pointed out that men consider it beneath the dignity of the royal prophet to have gone so long without his clothes. Lowth suggested that he walked naked and barefoot only for three days, which stood for three years! "Rosemuller supposed this to mean `only at intervals’ for three years.” To all such objections and suggestions, there remains the solid answer of the text: "And he did so, walking naked and barefoot."

Isaiah 20:1-2 SIGN: The year Sargon II subdued Ashdod was 711 B.C. Tartan is not the name of a person but a title of office. It is probably from the Akkadian word turtanu which was the title of one of three great officers of state in Assyria. He was the king’s viceroy, probably commander-in-chief of the army. Isaiah is probably writing this after the event but employing it, as directed by Jehovah, as a prophetic sign of events to come. In addition to the defeat of Ashdod (a city on the Philistine plain), Isaiah employs a personal exhibition as a symbol of Egypt’s imminent humiliation. The Lord told Isaiah to take his saq (a hairy mantle sometimes worn by prophets to give proof of the fact that they were not men to pamper their bodies, Cf. Zechariah 13:4; Mark 1:6) off and his sandals off and go about stripped. This disrobing would still leave Isaiah clad in the typical undergarment, a kind of linen tunic. Out of doors and in public men were not accustomed to go about dressed so unconventionally. To go clad thus did not offend all moral decency but did bring offense against customary modesty. It symbolized shame and said, “After mourning (sackcloth) comes disgrace (underclothing).”

Sargon II (722–705 B.C.) was an Assyrian king who is mentioned by name in the Bible only in Isaiah 20:1. Up to a century ago, no evidence of the existence of such a king had been found in any other available historical records. Destructive critics of the Bible stoutly maintained the Bible was in error in Isaiah 20:1. Some even insisted that there had been deliberate falsification of the biblical text here in order to give the Bible “historical flavor.” In 1843, Botta discovered the ruins of Sargon’s palace, in Khorsabad, on the north edge of Nineveh, with treasures and inscriptions showing him to have been one of Assyria’s greatest kings. In recent years the ruins of Sargon’s palace have been excavated by the Oriental Institute. From inscriptions it is learned that Shalmaneser died while besieging Samaria, and that he was succeeded by Sargon, who completed the capture. Furthermore, an inscription of Sargon, verifying the statement in Isaiah 20:1, was found: “Azuri, king of Ashdod, planned in his heart not to pay tribute. In my anger I marched against Ashdod with my usual bodyguard. I conquered Ashdod, and Gath. I took their treasures and their people. I settled in them people from the lands of the east. I took tribute from Philistia, Judah, Edom, and Moab.” The spade of the archaeologist has authenticated the veracity of the Bible and stopped the mouths of the critics! Sargon was murdered in 705 B.C. and succeeded by his son Sennacherib against whom Hezekiah revolted.

Verses 3-6

Isa 20:3-6

Isaiah 20:3-4

"And Jehovah said, Like as my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and a wonder concerning Egypt and concerning Ethiopia; so shall the king of Assyria lead away the captives of Egypt, and the exiles of Ethiopia, young and old, naked and barefoot, and with buttocks uncovered to the shame of Egypt."

Here again we have an example of God’s built-in proof of the prior existence of predictive prophecies. Even the wildest imagination cannot suppose that Isaiah was commanded to do a thing like that indicated here after the event prophesied had already taken place. See the note at the end of Isaiah 19.

Regarding the reason behind God’s purpose in this chapter, it was pointed out by Rawlinson that, "Isaiah’s mission was to discourage Judea’s joining Ashdod (and her Egyptian allies)” in their war against Sargon. In order to do this, "For a full three years prior to the fall of Ashdod, the prophet was a walking symbol of utter humiliation and destitution in the streets of Jerusalem.”

There were overtones of this spectacle (Isaiah’s walking naked and barefoot) that pointed to a similar fate for Judah; but that would not come from the Assyrians, but from the Babylonians. Therefore, this oracle is clearly stated to apply to the united power of Ethiopia-Egypt.

Isaiah seems to have been successful in persuading Judah to avoid taking sides with Ethiopia-Egypt, because there is no record that Sargon attacked Jerusalem. That came later in the reign of Sennacherib his son.

The prophecy regarding the carrying away of captives from Ethiopia and Egypt was fulfilled in the tremendous overthrow of the coalition by Ashurbanipal in 663 when No-amon (the same as Thebes) was brutally destroyed and large numbers of captives deported. The prophecy of Nahum has a remarkably graphic account of this crucial victory of Assyria against Egypt and Ethiopia.

Note the words, "buttocks uncovered" in Isaiah 20:4. Jamieson declares that, "Captives are found depicted thus on Egyptian monuments.”

Of all the ancient powers, the Assyrians were the most sadistically cruel. They were generally called "The Breakers"; and their horrible treatment of prisoners taken in war is fairly represented by Isaiah’s prophecy. The Babylonians do not seem to have been as cruel; therefore, although it was in God’s plan for Judah also to go into captivity, it was a great mercy that God’s providence sent them to Babylon and not to Nineveh. The failure of any of the Northern Israel to return from captivity was probably due directly to the fatal treatment of prisoners.

Isaiah 20:5

"And they shall be dismayed and confounded, because of Ethiopia their expectation, and of Egypt their glory."

Even in Nahum’s account of the fall of Egypt in the siege of No-amon, the alliance with Ethiopia was mentioned as one of the bulwarks upon which the doomed nation relied in vain for victory (Nahum 3:9).

One of the significant things not previously noted in this chapter is God’s reference to Isaiah as "my servant" in Isaiah 20:3. "Isaiah shares this honorable title with a select few of God’s saints: (1) Abraham (Genesis 26:24); (2) Moses (Numbers 12:7); (3) Caleb (Numbers 14:24); (4) Job (Job 1:8; Job 42:7-8; (5) Eliakim (Isaiah 22:20); and (6) Zerrubbabel (Haggai 2:23).” What an honor it is for any mortal to be recognized as one who is actually serving God!

Isaiah 20:6

"And the inhabitant of this coast-land shall say in that day, Behold, such is our expectation, whither we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria: and we, how shall we escape."

Here is the Lord’s prophecy through Isaiah of what the people of Judah shall say when they see what is going to happen to Ashdod. To paraphrase: Now, just look at what has happened to the powers we thought might be able to help us; where shall we turn for help? Judah’s only hope was the Lord; and thanks to Isaiah’s prophecies, they, at last, trusted God and were delivered from the cruel Assyrians in 701 B.C. when God put the hook in the nose of Sennacherib and dragged him back to Nineveh.

Isaiah 20:3-6 SIGNIFICATION: The defeat of Ashdod and Isaiah’s humiliating appearance were to signify to the inhabitants of Palestine (the Jews) that Assyria was about to defeat Egypt and Ethiopia and that only mourning and shame would come to the Jews should they continue to hope in their alliances with them. Evidently the people of Judah had been solidifying political and economic alliances with Egypt against Assyria for years (2 Kings 18:21). But they had also been making alliances with Assyria against Syria and Israel (Cf. 2 Kings 16:8 ff). They tried to play both ends against the middle. Egypt and Ethiopia, in whom the people of Judah had built such high hopes will be openly reduced to impotency, disgrace and shame. Egyptians and Ethiopians, whose glory and power had continued for centuries, would be taken captive and exiled, and all of them will be stripped of their outer garment and be barefoot, as was proverbially the case with captives and exiles. Those too young and too old for military service will be taken as well. Some will be stripped even of their undergarment (leaving perhaps some kind of loin cloth) so that they went with “buttocks uncovered”—involving the highest measure of disgrace for this once proud and arrogant people. This took several decades to see its fulfillment, but it did come to pass.

All this is to make the people of Judah dramatically aware of the folly of placing any trust in Egypt and Ethiopia as a protection from Assyria. “The Egyptians are men, and not God”; (Cf. Isaiah 31:3). But what success did Isaiah have? Whatever it was it was only temporary for we find a very strong and pervasive movement in Judah for Egyptian alliance in Jeremiah’s day (Cf. Jeremiah 44:24-30). The people of Judah put so much reliance on Egypt and Ethiopia on account of their armies and horses and chariots. Judah took no account of the fact that it is righteousness, truth and justice that makes a nation strong. These are the inner strengths of societal structure that protect nations against their worst enemies—themselves.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Isaiah 20". "Old & New Testament Restoration Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/onr/isaiah-20.html.
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