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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 20

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-6


Isaiah 20:1-6

A PROPHECY AGAINST EGYPT AND ETHIOPIA. The Assyrian inscriptions enable us to date this prophecy with a near approach to exactness. Ashdod was besieged by an Assyrian army twice in the reign of Sargon—in his ninth year and in his eleventh year. On the former occasion it is probable that the arms of a general (Tartan) were employed; on the latter it is nearly certain that Sargon made the expedition in person. The capture of Ashdod, here mentioned, is consequently the first capture. Egypt and Ethiopia were at the time united under one head, Shabak, or Shabatok; and the inhabitants of Ashdod looked to this quarter for deliverance from the Assyrian power. Shortly after the first capture, they revolted, deposed the king whom Sargon had set over them, appointed another, and then proceeded, in conjunction with Philistia, Judah, Edom, and Moab, to call in the aid of the Egyptians and Ethiopians. Isaiah's mission on this occasion was to discourage Judaea from joining Ashdod and her allies in this appeal. He was instructed to prophesy that Assyria would shortly inflict a severe defeat on the two African powers, and carry into captivity large numbers of both nations. The prophecy seems to have had its accomplishment about twelve years later, when Sennacherib defeated the combined forces of Egypt and Ethiopia at Eltekeh, near Ekron.

Isaiah 20:1

In the year that Tartan came unto Ashdod; rather, a tartan. The word was not a proper name, but a title of office, equivalent to surena among the Parthians, and signifying "commander-in-chief." The tartan held the second position in the empire. Isaiah has been accused of having confounded together the two sieges of Ashdod (Cheyne); but if one was conducted by the tartan, and the other by Sargon in person, his words would distinguish as perfectly as possible which siege he meant. When Sargon the King of Assyria sent him. The present passage furnished almost the sole trace of the existence of this monarch—one of the greatest of Assyria's sovereigns—until about the middle of the present century, when the exploration of the Assyrian ruins, and the decipherment of the Assyrian inscriptions, presented him to us in the most distinct and vivid way, as king, conqueror, and builder. He was the founder of the last and greatest of the Assyrian dynasties, the successor of the biblical Shalmaneser, and the father of Sennacherib. He reigned from B.C. 722 to B.C. 705. He was the captor of Samaria; he defeated the forces of Egypt; he warred on Susiana, Media, Armenia, Asia Minor, Cyprus; and he conquered and held in subjection Babylon. He built the great city explored by M. Botta, near Khorsabad, which is sometimes called "the French Nineveh." It is now found that Ptolemy's 'Canon' contains his name under the form of Arkeanus, and that Yacut's 'Geography' mentions his great city under the form of Sarghun. But these facts were unsuspected until the recent explorations in Mesopotamia, and Isaiah's mention of him alone gave him a place in history. And fought against Ashdod, and took it. Ashdod was the strongest of the Philistine cities, and one of the most ancient (Joshua 15:47). Its name is probably derived from a root meaning "strength." We hear of its having stood on one occasion a siege of twenty-nine years (Herod; 2:157). It is now known as Esdud. When Ashdod is first mentioned in the Assyrian inscriptions it is tributary to Sargon, having probably submitted to him in s c. 720, alter the battle of Raphia. It soon, however, revolts and reclaims its independence. In B.C. 713 the Assyrians proceed against it; and its capture is implied by the facts that the Assyrians depose its king, and install, one of his brothers as monarch in his room.

Isaiah 20:2

Loose the sackcloth from off thy loins. Dr. Kay supposes that Isaiah was wearing sackcloth exceptionally, as during a time of mourning. But it is more probable that the Hebrew sak represents the haircloth ("rough garment," Zechariah 13:4), which, as ascetics, the Hebrew prophets wore habitually (2 Kings 1:8; Matthew 3:4). Walking naked. Probably not actually "naked," for captives were not stripped bare by the Assyrians, but with nothing on besides his short tunic, as the male captives are commonly represented in the Assyrian sculptures.

Isaiah 20:3

My servant Isaiah. Isaiah shares this honorable title, "my servant," with a select few among God's saints—with Abraham (Genesis 26:24), Moses (Numbers 12:7), Caleb (Numbers 14:24), Job (Job 1:8; Job 42:7, Job 42:8), Eliakim (Isaiah 22:20), and Zerubbabel (Haggai 2:23). It is a great acknowledgment for the Creator to make to the creature, that he really does him service. Three years. Probably from B.C. 713 to B.C. 711, or during the whole of the time that Philistia, Edom, Moab, and Judah were making representations to the Egyptians and Ethiopians, and endeavoring to obtain their aid. It has been proposed, by an arbitrary emendation, to cut down the time to "three days;" but a three days' sign of the kind could not have been expected to have any important effect. The supposed "impropriety" of Isaiah's having "gone naked and barefoot" for three years arises from a misconception of the word "naked." which is not to be taken literally (see the comment on verse 2). The costume adopted would be extraordinary, especially in one of Isaiah's rank and position; but would not be in any degree "improper." It would be simply that of working men during the greater part of the day (see Exodus 22:26, Exodus 22:27).

Isaiah 20:4

So shall the King of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives. In Sennacherib's annals for the year B.C. 701, twelve years after this prophecy was given, we find the following passage: "The kings of Egypt, and the archers, chariots, and horsemen of the King of Meroe, a force without number, gathered and came to the aid of Ekron. In the neighborhood of Eltekeh their ranks were arrayed before me, and they urged on their soldiers. In the service of Asshur, my lord, I fought with them, and I accomplished their overthrow. The charioteers and sons of the kings of Egypt, and the charioteers of the King of Meroe, alive in the midst of the battle, my hand captured". Young and old. The intermixture of young and old, of full-grown males with women leading children by the hand or carrying them upon the shoulder, in the Assyrian sculptures, strikes us even on the most cursory inspection of them. Naked and barefoot. Assyrian captives are ordinarily represented "barefoot." Most commonly they wear a single tunic, reaching from the neck to the knees, or sometimes to the ankles, and girt about the waist with a girdle. It is probable that Egyptian and Ethiopian prisoners would be even more scantily clad, since the ordinary Egyptian tunic began at the waist and ended considerably above the knee.

Isaiah 20:5

They shall be afraid and ashamed. Those who have resorted to Egypt and Ethiopia for aid shall be "ashamed" of their folly in doing so, and "afraid" of its consequences (see the last clause of Isaiah 20:6).

Isaiah 20:6

The inhabitant of this isle; rather, of this coast (Knobel, Hitzig, Kay); i.e. of Palestine generally, which was a mere strip of coast compared with Egypt and Ethiopia. Sargon speaks of all the four powers who at this time "sought to Egypt," as "dwelling beside the sea". Such is our expectation; rather, so hath it gone with our expectation; i.e; with Egypt and Ethiopia.


Isaiah 20:1-4

Foolish trust rebuked by a strange sign.

Few things are so difficult as to bring men to rely wholly and solely upon God. The circumstances of the time were these. Humanly speaking, Judaea lay absolutely at the mercy of Assyria. There was no existing power or combination of powers that could successfully contend at the time against the vast bodies of well-armed and well-disciplined soldiers which a king of Assyria could bring into the field. Nothing could prolong Jewish independence for more than a few years but some miraculous interposition of God on behalf of the Jewish people. But for God to interpose miraculously, it was necessary that implicit trust should be placed in him. The Jews, however, could not bring themselves to believe that they had no help but Jehovah. They thought Egypt, or Egypt and Ethiopia combined, might well prove a match for Assyria, and were bent on l, lacing themselves under the protection of the combined powers. The lesson of the destruction of the kingdom of Israel, which had trusted in Egypt (2 Kings 17:4), and then been destroyed by Assyria, was lost on them. In connection with Ashdod, they had actually sent ambassadors to Egypt to entreat assistance (Isaiah 30:1-4). Then it was that Isaiah received the special mission which was to warn his countrymen of the utter folly of trusting to human aid. For three years he was to wear the scant clothing that Assyrian captives ordinarily wore, announcing that he did so in token that ere long the warriors of Egypt and Ethiopia would be seen thus clad, on their way from Egypt to captivity at Nineveh. The unusual attire of the prophet could not but create a great sensation. It probably made a considerable impression on Hezekiah and his counselors. It was not forgotten; and if it did not at once cause the negotiations with Egypt to be broken off, it produced the result that, when Isaiah's prediction was fulfilled after the battle of Eltekeh, the Jewish monarch and people did in their trouble turn to God. At the crisis of his danger, Hezekiah made appeal to the Almighty (Isaiah 37:4); and his appeal was followed by that destruction of the Assyrian host (Isaiah 37:36) which caused the Assyrians to respect and fear the Jews thenceforward, and to allow them to retain their independence. Thus the life of the Jewish monarchy was extended for above a century.


Isaiah 20:1-6

The prophet as a sign.

I. THE HISTORICAL CIRCUMSTANCES. The illusion of Egyptian unity had passed away again. The country was broken up under the rule of a number of petty kings, of whom Shabak, or So, or Seve (2 Kings 17:4), was one. Negotiations seem to have been begun between Judah and Egypt, probably as a resource against the Assyrian. Ashdod was laid siege to by the Assyrians about B.C. 713-711, and the inhabitants carried off captives. And Judah's name appears in the Assyrian inscriptions among the nations guilty of treason to Assyria. Isaiah, both as the prophet and the politician, is seen to be opposed to the Egyptian alliance. And his policy seems to have been justified by the event, for Judah was subsequently invaded and subdued. When the tartan, or Assyrian general, came to Ashdod, sent by King Sargon, the spirit of Isaiah was stirred within him.

II. THE SYMBOLIC ACT OF THE PROPHET. He takes his distinctive dress of haircloth from his loins, and is "bare," in that sense in which the Roman soldier was said to be nudus without his armour. So the Prophet Micah says he will wail and howl, and go stripped and naked, because of the desolation of the land. The reader will be reminded of George Fox at Lichfield, and of Solomon Eagle preaching repentance to the people amidst the horrors of the Plague of London, of which scene there was an affecting picture by Poole in the Royal Academy winter exhibition of 1884. The act is:

1. Expressive of strong feeling; suited to Oriental effusiveness, though not to our colder habits. The mind needs, in moments of strong feeling, to see itself reflected in some outward form. We all acknowledge this in connection with the great epochs of life—the funeral, the wedding, The great heart of the prophet throbbing in sympathy with his nation, must signify his grief at its condition by some change in his attire. And then:

2. It is a means of impressing others. We speak, not only by our words, but by our appearance, our apparel, our manners. Though we are not called upon in our time to adopt a peculiar dress, that dress should betoken a serious mind. Inconspicuousness may serve as good an end as conspicuousness in this matter. Let us at least, without straining a point, learn this lesson, that life should be significant. It should mean something; not be neutral, utterly without emphasis; or dubious to the eye and ear, like heathen oracles and heathen symbols. Without affectation and folly, we can find a way to make others feel that we feel and think and have a purpose in existence. But this way of self-manifestation must be adapted to our own constitution, to the taste of others, to the condition of our times.

III. THE APPLICATION OF THE SYMBOLISM. Egypt and Ethiopia will fall into humiliation and captivity. There will be every sign of disgrace. And Judah will see the fallacy of having put her trust in Egyptian alliances. It is a deeply painful picture of a nation's shame that rises before us in these verses. Shameless sins bring shameful punishment. "Conquest and captivity are perhaps the bitterest cup that vengeance can put into the hands of a sinful people." This general lesson, then, may be drawn: The effect not only points to the cause, but the nature of the effect to the nature of the cause. "Of all the curses which can possibly befall a sinner, there is none comparable to this, that he should add iniquity to iniquity, and sin to sin, which the shameless person cannot but do, till he falls by it too; his recovery, while under that character, being utterly impossible. For where there is no place for shame, there can be none for repentance. God of his infinite goodness work better minds in us!" (South).—J.


Isaiah 20:1-3

Unpleasant service.

It may always remain uncertain whether Isaiah went stripped and barefoot for three whole years or for a shorter period. Two things, however, are quite certain, viz. that for some time, longer or shorter, this servant of Jehovah (verse 3) went about Jerusalem in that humiliating condition, and that he would have unhesitatingly done this all the time if God had required him to do so. Many suggestions have been made on the subject, but it does not occur to any one to entertain the idea that Isaiah would decline to render such an unpleasant service, however long the period of service might be.


1. To incur the hostility of those whose honor and affection we would fain enjoy. Isaiah had to pronounce against an alliance with Egypt and Ethiopia, thus stirring up the active dislike of those politicians who advised that course. We may often have to take a course which is regarded and denounced as unpatriotic or disloyal.

2. To endure privation as the consequence of fidelity. Isaiah, in the fulfillment of his prophetic mission, went half-clad through all changes of temperature. In order to speak the true and faithful word which God has put into our mind, or to take the right course which he opens before us, we may have to do that which will lessen our resources and lead to straitened means and even to serious embarrassment.

3. To expose ourselves to the derision of the skeptic or the scoffing. Doubtless the partisans of Egypt sneered and the idle multitude mocked as the unclothed prophet passed by. It is hard to have to utter that truth or to identify ourselves with that course which entails the bitter raillery of the opponent and the heartless jest of the ribald crowd. But "my servant Isaiah walked naked and barefoot" as long as he was charged to do so. And we conclude—


1. God's demand is absolute and authoritative. If the filial son hastens to do the behest of his father, the loyal subject that of his king, the brave soldier that of his commander, however uninviting or even perilous it may be, how much more shall we render instant and hearty obedience to the "Do this" of our heavenly Father, of our Divine Redeemer.

2. God asks us to do that which is small and slight indeed in comparison with the service which, in Jesus Christ, he has rendered us. What are the privations, the insults, the humiliations we may be summoned to endure for Christ when compared with the poverty and the shame and the sorrow to which he stooped for us?

3. Our unpleasant work is prior, and perhaps preparatory, to nobler and more congenial service further on. Faithful in the "few things" now and here, we shall have rule given us over "many things" in the coming years, and still more truly in the better land.—C.

Isaiah 20:5, Isaiah 20:6

The insufficiency of the stronger.

Assyria attacked Ashdod with designs on Judaea. Judaea rested on Egypt and Ethiopia; but these "powers" would be utterly defeated by Assyria, and their citizens led away into captivity with every circumstance of humiliation and shame. In that hour of fear and humiliation (Isaiah 20:5) the inhabitants of Judaea would be constrained to argue from the insufficiency of Egypt and Ethiopia to their own helplessness. If such strong nations as these are ignominiously overthrown, "how shall we escape?" We conclude—

I. THAT TIMES OF SEVERE TRIAL AWAIT US ALL. Not only collectively but individually considered. As separate, individual souls we must anticipate that the future has in store for us not only the pleasant, the gratifying, the successful, but also the unpleasant, the painful, even the overwhelming. Some of the more crushing sorrows it may be our fortune to escape, but every one of us will have his share. Sickness which threatens to be fatal; bitter disappointment which appears to throw the whole future path into darkest shadow; bereavement which takes away the very light of our eyes; the sudden loss which strips the tree of branch as well as bloom; the financial or (what is a thousand times worse) the moral failure of beloved friend or near relation; the last illness unexpectedly arriving and extinguishing many a cherished purpose; the powerful temptation inviting and almost constraining to folly, or vice, or crime;—one or more el these things, or things as bad as these, will certainly overtake us all.

II. THAT THOSE WHO ARE STRONGER THAN WE ARE SOMETIMES FOUND TO BREAK BENEATH THE BLOW. We hear or read of men who in mental capacity, in educational advantages, in worldly endowments, or in the number of their friends, are superior to ourselves, but who cannot stand the strain of their trial. Either their health breaks down, or their sanity seriously suffers, or their faith fails, or their courage and energy succumb, or their moral character is lost, and consequently their reputation is shattered, never to be restored.

III. THAT IF THESE STRONGER SOULS ARE BEATEN, WE MUST BE IN DANGER OF DEFEAT. If Egypt and Ethiopia are led into captivity, how shall Judaea be delivered—"how shall we escape?" The storm in which such noble vessels founder will wreck our fragile bark. On any ordinary human calculations we cannot hope to be victorious where spirits so much stronger and wiser than we are have been crushed. But we need not yield to despondency; if we are the disciples and followers of Jesus Christ, and if, therefore, "the Lord is on our side," we may find relief and rest in the thought—

IV. THAT WE HAVE A SAFE REFUGE IN AN ALMIGHTY SAVIOR. So long as Judea was faithful to Jehovah, she had no need to be afraid of Assyria, and she could afford to witness the overthrow of the Egyptian and Ethiopian armies. So long as we are loyal to our Divine Lord we may go fearlessly forward into the future. If the good Shepherd—"the great Shepherd of the sheep"—be our Guardian, we will "fear no evil," though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, though the darkest shadows shut us round.—C.


Isaiah 20:2, Isaiah 20:3

Divine revelation in actions as well as words.

The language is somewhat uncertain, but it seems better to understand that, for three years, Isaiah was seen going to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, having the dress and appearance of one who was already a prisoner of war, ready to be led into an ignominious exile. Isaiah wore no upper or outer garment, and no sandals, so that, when his dress was compared with that of others, he might be said to go naked; but "naked" in Scripture usually means "with only under-garments on." The three years were, perhaps, designed to represent three incursions of the Assyrians. The general topic suggested is the variety of forms which Divine revelations may take; the diversity of agencies which Divine revelation may employ. All modes by which man may he reached and influenced God may take up and use for conveying his mind and will.

I. REVELATION IN NATURE. We often speak of a voice in nature. That voice God may employ. The beautiful, the sublime, the gentle, affect us, and bring to us thoughts of God's goodness, wisdom, and power. This kind of revelation St. Paul recognizes, pleading thus at Lystra (Acts 14:17), "Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness;" and writing thus to the Romans (Romans 1:20), "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead." What is called natural religion is that common knowledge of God, and of our duty to God, which comes through nature alone; and God has so made us kin with nature, has so set us in relation with an external world, that we can receive moral impressions through it.

II. REVELATION IN INCIDENTS. Events of personal life and of public history convey God's mind to us. And therefore so much of our Bible is but a treasured record of facts and incidents. Our Lord's life on the earth was full of incidents, and we find in these the truths which God purposed, by Christ, to teach us. We are constantly receiving fresh revelations, new to us individually, though not new to the world, through the circumstances of public or of private life. We often think of this as God's voice in providence.

III. REVELATION IN MINDS. Or in those parts of man that are distinct from the senses. What we think of as the spiritual nature of man, including his conscience. God's witness in this part of our being is argued by St. Paul, when, writing of the heathen, to whom a book revelation has not been given, he says (Romans 2:15), "Which show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another." We must guard against the notion that God has put all his will into a book, and has now no direct access to our souls. What is true is that we can test all direct revelations by their harmony with the revelation that is written.

IV. REVELATION IN SYMBOLS. Since symbols do convey ideas to men, God may use them. Illustrate by vision of divided pieces to Abraham; pillar of cloud to Israel; angel with drawn sword to David; fire-flash to Israel on Carmel, etc. And, to take symbols of another character, the prophets acted things before the people, making impressions without employing words—as Isaiah here; as Zedekiah's horns (1 Kings 22:11); Jeremiah's yokes (Jeremiah 27:2); Ezekiel's lying on his side (Ezekiel 4:4); and Agabus' binding himself with his girdle (Acts 21:11).

V. REVELATION IN WORDS. The more ordinary method of communication between man and man. This opens up the opportunity of showing

(1) the reasonableness and

(2) the practical efficiency of a book revelation, and of commending that Collection of revelations which we call Holy Scripture.

Howsoever God may be pleased to speak to us, our duty is to heed, listening with the cherished purpose that we will carry out the Divine will in all holy and loving obedience.—R.T.

Isaiah 20:5

The bitter experience of all who trust in man.

The sin of Judah, in its latter days, was its reliance on Egypt for help rather than on God. In alarm at the advance of Assyria, the natural alliance was with Egypt; but alliance with any world-power was unworthy of a nation whose history had been so full of Divine deliverings and defendings as that of the Jews. And Egypt could not help. It was a broken reed. A type of all merely human helpers; for "cursed is the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord." Hoses represents Israel as finding out how vain is the help of man, and turning to God with this penitential promise, "Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses: neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods." The following three points open up lines of thought and illustration, and should be sufficiently suggestive without detailed treatment.

I. WE CANNOT TRUST MAN, FOR WE CANNOT BE SURE OF HIS GOOD WILL. These two dangers are ever before us:

1. The man who seems willing to serve us may be deceiving us, and really serving his own ends, setting his interests before ours.

2. And if a man begins sincerely to serve us, we have no security that his good will is maintained, and presently he may take advantage of us. We cannot read hearts. And hearts do not always keep steadfast. So "put not your trust in princes, nor in the sons of men, in whom there is no help."

II. WE CANNOT TRUST MAN, FOR WE CANNOT BE SURE THAT HIS ABILITY MATCHES HIS WILL. So often we find in life that men who could, will not help us, and men who would, cannot. With this sort of feeling in his mind the sufferer came to the "Man Christ Jesus," saying, "If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean."

III. WE CAN NEVER RECKON ON MAN IF HE IS AGAINST GOD. Such a man can never be any help to us. The Jews forsook God to seek help from a godless nation, and it was bound to prove a bitter and humiliating experience. Man may be, and often is, God's agent for helping us; but then our trusting is in God who sends, and not in the man who may be sent to do his bidding.—R.T.

Isaiah 20:6

A grove question with many applications.

"How shall we escape?" Egypt being reduced, no defense remained for Israel against the overwhelming power of Assyria. "This was the cry of despair at Jerusalem. But in such despair was her only hope. The destruction of Egypt and Ethiopia by the arms of Sennacherib weaned her from looking any longer to earthly powers for help, and raised her eyes to heaven" (Bishop Wordsworth). The expression, or exclamation, may be—

I. APPLIED TO PERSONAL TROUBLES. Oftentimes in life we are brought to extremities; we know not what to do, nor which way to take. In our difficulties, hedged in on every side, we cry out, "How shall we escape?" The Israelites cried thus when the Red Sea rolled before them, a wall of mountains barred the path, and an enraged foe hurried upon them from behind. The secret of peace and deliverance is, "Trust in the Lord, who maketh ways in the seas, and paths in the great waters."

II. APPLIED TO THE POWER OF SIN. When it has become the enslavement of fixed habit. Compare St. Paul's exclamation, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" And see his triumphant answer, "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord."

III. APPLIED TO THE PENALTIES OF SINNING. The "fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall consume the adversaries." The utter despair of escape is pictured in Scripture by the people crying to the very rocks to cover and hide them from the wrath of God and of the Lamb.

IV. APPLIED TO OUR PRESENT OPPORTUNITIES OF SALVATION. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews finds expression for this (Hebrews 2:2, Hebrews 2:3): "If the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" This grave question—this great cry—may be the cry of hopeful self-humiliation and distrust; and then to it God will be sure to respond. But it may be the cry of hopeless despair, the conviction that the day of grace is passed, that it is "too late;" and then God's response must be holding aloof, and letting the overwhelming judgments come, if even thus at last the true humiliations may be wrought.—R.T.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Isaiah 20". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/isaiah-20.html. 1897.
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