Isaiah (Part 19): Judgment – Egypt to Babylon (Ch 17:12-21:5)
In Isaiah 17:12, the prophecy of judgment begins to reach beyond the nations that were part of the direct interaction with Judah covered so far in regard to Assyria’s attack. The binding of this expanded circle to the judgment story is not so much the nation of Judah as previously, but now the nation of Assyria appears central. God used Assyria as his instrument of judgment on Syria, Ephraim, Philistia, Moab, and Judah. But God lets us know that these were not the only nations that he will judge by Assyrian attack.
Isaiah 17:12 grabs our attention not by sight but rather by sound. Our eyes had been focused on Judah and the nations attacking her or seeking alliance or help from her. But while our eyes are focused there, God raises the noise level beyond that sight to lift our focus away. We hear the roaring of the seas, and we recognize this noise as conflict and distress of nations beyond. God mentions “many peoples” almost to say, “Not just these nations, but many others are linked together by the same sin that must be judged.”
God shows in the next couple of verses that he is concerned with these other nations as well; therefore, he rebukes. He is in control of all things; therefore, they flee and are driven before him. But always the mercy of God is with those who trust in him. So, then, even here we see from the remnant perspective. Terrors come, but God acts. We may be confident that no terror is beyond his control.
This introduction to expansion continues into chapter 18. We read first about a faraway land—the land of Cush (modern-day Ethiopia). This is a land of “buzzing insect wings.” The Hebrew here projects a more clinking than buzzing sound. “Wings” also literally speaks of covering and extremities. The idea is that in a far-off place we hear the noises of battle—even a place as far away as Cush, the concern about Assyria grows. A message is sent—most probably from Egypt to the people of Cush. At the time, Egypt had an alliance with Cush. Egypt was worried about the growing strength of Assyria and wanted to be sure that Cush would stand with her in stopping Assyria’s advance.
But all the alliance-making and preparation for battle has a noted absence. The God who controls the world is not in the thoughts of these making ready for war. But God is there. In verse 4 we see him looking quietly at the scene in his place. This shows us that we have been brought in to his place, not he to ours. He is like shimmering heat in sunshine or a rain cloud (dew) in harvest heat. This is his world; you can’t push him away or disregard him. He is part of everything.
And so the harvest that those ignoring him comes, and they find it destroyed. But God’s harvest of his remnant (verse 7) will reach into those very nations that had had no thought of him.
The oracle against Egypt begins in chapter 19. That oracle is divided into three sections. Verses 1-4 discuss civil unrest—a social upheaval. The Nile River territory was divided into the upper region—the land of Cush, the mid region—the Pharaoh-governed administration, and the lower region—the delta area. During this time period of the 700s BC, although a loose confederation was in existence, these regional factions resulted in the “Egypt against Egypt” fighting described in verse 2. Verse 4 speaks of a strong king. The king of Cush, Piankhi, succeeded in establishing control over this whole area in 715 BC. While Cush held control, it was not the same control as Assyria exercised. Assyria would take over lands of its conquest and displace much of the population in order to maintain absolute control. Piankhi, however, established Cush’s superiority but formed a confederation rather than attempting to expand the borders of Cush. Notice that this confederation or alliance placed its faith in the idols and spiritists of verse 3.
Verses 5 through 10 speak of the commercial or economic woes in the judgment. Egypt found distress in their industries. Finally in verses 11 through 15 we see that the wisdom to lead the nation results in disorder—a political upheaval. We are told here that the princes of Zoan (the northern delta capital) were fools. And the princes of Memphis (Egypt’s southern capital) were deceived. The deception is, of course, that they could thwart the judgment of God.
The rest of chapter 19 (verses 16 through 25) focuses on God’s remnant—even here in Egypt. We see in verses 16 and 17 the revelation of God—that the land of Judah will terrify Egypt. This is interesting because, historically, Judah never fought against Egypt to try to conquer it. The terror speaks of God through his remnant people appropriately succeeding in demonstrating Egypt’s despair in self-promotion, while ultimate, spiritual success in peace and safety comes through the message of Judah—that God is in control. Verses 18-22 show the regard for God by his people, even in Egypt. Five cities (a portion) of Egypt comes to faith in God.
The City of the Sun mentioned in verse 18 is somewhat cryptic. The Masoretic text actually speaks of the “city of destruction.” It is in the Dead Sea Scrolls that we read instead of the “city of the Sun.” And the Septuagint has a third rendering: “city of righteousness.” The intent is most probably highlighting a remnant people who see (as is possible from the light of the Sun) and are righteous (having faith) and therefore promote destruction to the false faith and ways of Egypt.
The last three verses of the chapter show the ultimate end of God’s remnant people. Looking to the ultimate judgment, a highway runs from Assyria to Egypt, obviously crossing the land of Judah. This highway illustrates the remnant people of faith from both the judged (Egypt) and the instrument of judgment (Assyria) coming to God (represented by the covenant land of Judah).
Chapter 20 still applies to the oracle against Egypt. Those who do not turn to faith in God are shamed. The reference to Ashdod in verse 1 is significant. It was Philistia in chapter 14 that attempted to draw Judah into the Cush-Egyptian anti-Assyria alliance. But Ashdod is captured, helping us realize that there is no protection apart from God.
Chapter 21 begins with the oracle against Babylon. Although some scholars suggest that this passage reveals the destruction of Babylon by the Medo-Persian empire in 539 BC, the account here probably fits better in the 710 to 689 BC time period. In 721 BC, Merodach-Baladan became king in Babylon. In 710, Sargon, king of Assyria, wages war against Babylon and defeats it. But Merodach-Baladan comes back in around 705 to win Babylon back. His hold is not very strong. Sennacherib, Sargon’s son who becomes king after his father, defeats Merodach-Baladan again in 702, recapturing the territory. Over the next several years, Merodach-Baladan continues to skirmish against Assyria until a final triumph of Sennacherib in 689 BC.
Understanding that period as the subject for this oracle, we see in verse 1 that the Assyrian attack is likened to a storm in the desert, particularly a storm in the Negev. The Negev was an area south of Judah—not around Babylon. Thus, since Isaiah is writing to Jews, the Jews would be familiar with the frequent Negev storms. If this passage were describing Babylon’s fall in 539, few Jews could relate to Negev storms since the greater population of Jews had been displaced to Babylon over the last 70 years.
In verse 2, the speaker (“me”) is Isaiah. He is the one troubled by the vision. The vision includes is a quote most likely made by Merodach-Baladan (M-B). M-B is decrying the treachery of Assyria. He calls on Elam and Media (who were in alliance with Babylon at this time) to rise up against Assyria.
But Isaiah shows in verses 3 and 4 that this brings him distress. Why? It is because Judah appears to want to join in alliance with Babylon against the fearful nation of Assyria. Isaiah is bothered because Judah, again, seems to want to place its trust in alliance rather than in God (who is actually using Assyria as his instrument of judgment). Notice verse 5 which could seem cryptic as it switches from talk of war to talk of preparing a banquet. What is the significance in the change of scene?
This is likely Hezekiah’s welcoming of the envoy from Babylon. We read about this delegation in Isaiah 39. Hezekiah had welcomed Babylon’s emissaries, delighting in the alliance against Assyria. Isaiah tells Hezekiah that for this trust misplacement, Judah would become the conquest of Babylon.