The Isaiah Project: Chapter 19, or, My People Egypt
Hello again -- as usual it's my pleasure to present the next chapter of the Isaiah Project. Translation is below, with an explanatory essay below that, and recordings available for purchase here.
The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 19
The Burden of Egypt:
Look at God astride his chariot of swift clouds: he comes to Egypt. And Egypt’s empty gods will reel in his presence; its heart will dissolve inside it.
2. I will pit Egypt against Egypt. They’ll go to war: every man against his brother, every man against his friend. City against city, kingdom against kingdom.
3. And Egypt’s spirit will be exhausted inside it; I will erase their plans and they’ll go running to their empty gods and cheap conjurers, to their mediums and magicians.
4. I hand Egypt over to hardened masters: a king will rule them with fierce might,' declares the Master, God with his Legions.
5. Then the ocean’s waters will run out; the river dry up and slink away;
6. The rivers falter; the brooks that surround them in safety languish and run dry; the sedges and reeds wither;
7. The lichen by the Nile — by the Nile’s mouth — and every river crop sown will slink away, be driven out, be nothing.
8. And the fisherman will moan in lament; everyone who casts hooks into the Nile or spreads nets across the water’s face will waste away.
9. Labourers who work with flaxen threads will be put to shame; so will those who weave linen,
10. And everyone who makes sluices and fishponds . . . her bedrock will be left in rubble.
11. How brainless Zoan’s elites are. Pharaoh’s wisest strategists form a wasted planning committee — how can you say to Pharaoh, ‘I am a son of wise men, a son of venerable Eastern kings?’
12. Where are your wise men now? Let’s see them tell you, let’s see what they know about what strategies the God of Legions is planning for Egypt.
13. Zoan’s elites make fools of themselves. Noph’s elites are deluded. They tripped Egypt up, those pillars of her tribes.
14. God concocted a noxious spirit inside her, and they tripped Egypt up in everything it did, the way a drunk trips in his own sick.
15. And there won’t be any work done in Egypt that a head or tail does, or a palm frond or a reed.
16. On That Day Egypt will be like a woman: it will quiver and tremble when faced with the fist God shakes, the shaking fist of the God of Legions.
17. And the land of Judah’s men will be dizzying terror for Egypt. Everyone who calls it to mind will tremble in the face of the plans God of Legions plans against him.
18. On That Day five cities in Egyptian territory will be speakers of Canaan’s tongue; they’ll swear themselves to the God of Legions. ‘City of Demolition,’ one of them will be called.
19. On That Day there’ll be an altar to God in the center of Egypt’s territory, and a column too, right on her border, erected to God.
20. And it’s meant as a sign, a witness to God with his Legions, in Egypt’s territory, the way they’ll call out to God in the face of those who grind them down. He’ll send them a saviour, a colossus, and he’ll rescue them.
21. And God will be made known to Egypt; Egypt will know God On That Day. Then they’ll offer service, sacrifice, oblation; they’ll vow vows to God, and keep the peace.
22. And God will topple Egypt — topple it and lift it back to life, and they’ll come back to God. And he’ll be moved by their pleas, and heal them.
23. On That Day there will be a thoroughfare from Egypt to Assyria — Assyria will come to Egypt, and Egypt to Assyria. Egypt will offer its service alongside Assyra.
24. On That Day Israel will make a third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the center of the land.
25. Which God with his Legions blessed, saying: 'blessed are my people Egypt, and Assyria, and the things my hands have made, and my inheritance, Israel.
'My people, Egypt': it's hard to measure the weight of those words. If you're reading this, chances are they're some of the most important words in the Bible for you -- even if you've never given them any thought.
God originally chose one people: the Jewish people of Israel. It was they alone who would worship the true creator of the universe and show his glory to the rest of the world. The Jews were under strict orders never to dilute their own religion by intermingling it with other faiths. And few nations were more threatening to this purity than Egypt, which had enslaved the Jews so brutally around the 16th century BC. The Jewish people had become who they were in part by escaping Egyptian persecution. After that, they did everything they could to ensure they would never be subservient to a foreign nation again.
After Egypt, the Jews finally came to the land of Israel, where God had promised them a nation of their own. All around them there were deities jockeying with one another for primacy and rulers demanding to be worshipped as gods. Ashur and Ishtar in Assyria to the East, Ra and Anubis to the South in Egypt, even Zeus and the Olympians in those westward islands of Greece: all of these offered alternatives for Israel to worship, often promising power and comfort in exchange for fealty. The Jews were commanded to resist with all their might, but it was an attractive offer. Especially with Assyria on the rise, it must have looked like the gods of the foreign nations had bounteous wealth and generous hands.
In the 8th century BC, Israel finally gave in. They had slipped before -- even the mighty King Solomon found himself seduced by the promises of foreign gods (see 1 Kings 11). And in recent years the nation itself had been torn apart by civil war, as Ephraim in the North seceded to form its own kingdom and make alliances with outside powers. But the capital city of Jerusalem, ruled by kings from the tribe of Judah, was still holding on. Like a weak lantern in the pitch dark, Jerusalem and its temple kept up the rituals and practices which were meant to proclaim that there is only one God. That finally changed when King Ahaz of Judah, under terrible pressure from Ephraim and desperate for aid from Assyria, built an altar in Jerusalem to worship Assyrian deities (see 2 Kings 16).
It was in that moment that God, in Isaiah's vision, stopped calling Israel 'my nation' and started simply to call it 'this nation' (see 6:10 and Chapter 8; cf. Hosea 1). Joining forces with Assyria meant forfeiting the distinctiveness of Israel's calling, rejecting the one true God who had chosen the Jews out of every other people. Israel became instead one among innumerably many kingdoms worshipping innumerably many gods, and as such they were doomed to fall as all such nations eventually do. Without supernatural help, Jerusalem would be conquered by Babylon along with Assyria. And so the Jewish people would find themselves scattered and enslaved at the hands of a foreign people yet again, just as they had been in Egypt.
This is perhaps the strangest tragedy ever to unfold on the world stage. It is a tragedy because it showed once and for all the true state of humanity. If anyone could have remained faithful to God and done his will, it would have been the Jewish people whom God had chosen for that very purpose. But instead they lost their way and so demonstrated that not one human person or race on earth can successfully obey our common creator. What is strange, though, is that this deepest disappointment of all history set the stage for God's greatest gift to the world. The failure of Israel to live up to its call showed that human beings are incapable of earning God's favor by willfully obeying him. And so if the human race was to be saved now, it would have to rely on the mercy of a God who, in the face of every disappointment, would still forgive his people.
But who were those people? If not those born into the race God chose, that bloodline descended from Abraham, then what community could possibly be called God's own? Only the remnant -- those mournful few left in Jerusalem to whom Isaiah spoke, who held out hope that God would rescue them. The remnant were a new nation of stragglers scattered throughout a conquered Israel, defined solely by virtue of this one belief: that God would still forgive and save after every human effort had failed. This remnant, this people within a people, were the only ones with hope in the face of the greatest human error of all time.
The remnant went into exile. When Babylon triumphed over Assyria and conquered Jerusalem, the remnant were taken along with the rest of the Jews into foreign lands. They were made to live in unfamiliar cities and serve strange masters. But even there, even suffering oppression and pain, they believed. They believed that God would send a saviour, and they believed that no matter how they had strayed that saviour would be for them. The remnant believed, and like seeds scattered from a dead tree they spread out across the world. They were indistinguishable from their contrymen to everyone except God: belief, not birth, was what defined them.
And if God saves those who believe despite their sin, then he can save anyone -- Jewish or not. Even the captors and oppressors, those who mocked Israel and enslaved its people after Babylon triumphed, might with time come to see that they too needed salvation. That is the point of these chapters of Isaiah, these relentless miseries visted upon Damascus and Babylon and now Egypt: not punishment, but repentance. Like Israel itself, these foreign peoples would be broken down so they could realise that without God's help, they must eventually die. Hence, 'God will topple Egypt — topple it and lift it back to life, and they’ll come back to God' (verse 22). Faced with failure and conquest, the Egyptians too will come to learn what the remnant has learned: that God's mercy is our only hope.
'My people, Egypt': never before had such a thought been possible. Never before had 'my people' been anyone but the Jews. Now, though, with Jerusalem fallen and the remnant scattered, every race of our species could find its way back to Zion and the heart of God. 'My people, Egypt, and Zimbabwe, and Iran, and America, and Spain and England' -- without the remnant, such things could never have been. My faith, and that of every gentile Christian, is made possible in this chapter of Isaiah. Out of our greatest failure as a species, God calls us back to him at last.